There are clear differences in the ways that Ekatrina Oleksa and Wendy Burger - the character she plays in the new Perseverance Theatre play "Wait!" - were drawn to acting. But the similarities - small towns and stage dreams, geographic constraints and visions of making a difference - make the monologue-driven, 110-minute comedy seem more poignant.
"There's something about growing up in a small town where you learn this idea of how much you can actually do," said Oleksa, who lived in small towns all over Alaska before moving to Juneau. "When you get very small, big goals start to seem impossible. Part of the problem of Wendy was that got to a point where she didn't feel like she was capable of doing anything."
"There's so much in this play about dreaming big and having big dreams and going after big dreams," she said. "Somehow she learns to dream again."
"Wait!" follows Wendy, a socially awkward introspective misfit UPS truck driver, as she wins a role in a theater and finally finds herself. It's a comedy, but veers off into drama at sudden and unexpected moments. Playwright Julie Jensen dedicated her script to "all those who have found themselves in theater."
The production opens at 8 p.m. Friday, May 7, and runs at Perseverance through Sunday, May 30.
"I think it's about that excitement of what's about to happen, as if you're waiting off-stage and just about to make your entrance," said actor Chris Kauffman (Dad, Hazar and Lu). "There's a beauty in that moment, of how your life is about to take shape. You don't want it to end there, because you want to relish in that possibility. I think the waiting is the thing that Wendy's focusing on and relishing. She's enjoying that possibility."
The play begins with Wendy watching over her alcoholic dad (Kauffman). She dreams, in little fantasies played out as famous soliloquies, of starring on-stage. Her flamboyant friend Lu (Kauffman) takes over a community theater, and she finds ways of helping out. She falls for the ditzy house ingenue, O' Vixen, My Vixen (Doniece Falcon). Along the way, she's visited by Hazar (Kauffman) and Jen-Ya (Emily Windover), her earnest and wacky Eastern European neighbors; Modesto (Windover), a tough-talking beefcarver and femme fatale; and Floating Pinata Head (Windover), a fabulous, obsessed queen mother of theater coaches.
"It's a great little jab in the ribs of the serious theater, and it's funny that way," Falcon said. "It's also a serious story in that Wendy Burger finds herself and is able to not end up working behind the counter of State Farm Insurance. She actually goes and does something. It helps this girl become a person that she's content and happy with."
"In my life, there was a definite moment of realizing that (the theater) is my home, this is where I belong," Windover said. "And there's that experience of meeting all these interesting people and having them be so influential."
"Sometimes when people come back to Juneau after going to college and traveling, they feel sort of suffocated by the small town," she said. "Wendy isn't someone that ever feels sorry for herself. She recognizes that this play has made a difference in her life, and she's grateful for it despite everything she's had to deal with. It seems that the moments in our lives that sort of redefine who we are the real moments of falling in love, or being disappointed, or having a rough relationship with your dad, or whatever."
Jensen developed the characters out of her own experiences. Director Anita Maynard-Losh encouraged the four actors to develop their role out of observation and invention, rather than impression. But most of the personalities are so archetypal, it's hard to not know someone who fits each character.
"There was this particular waitress at a Denny's in Salt Lake City," Falcon said. "When I started to learn about (Vixen) and where she was from, the picture of this girl came into my head. But there were also girls that I went to college with, and even myself, who said, 'When I was younger, I'm going to be in theater' without really knowing what all that means."
"There's a guy I went to acting school with that has a lot of Lu-like characteristics," Kauffman said. "And there's a friend of mine's father who's really cantankerous and speaks louder than he should, and that sort of helped me click into the dad."
Floating Pinata Head reminds Windover of a drama teacher she once had in North Carolina. Her other characters sprung out of the script.
"Modesto is unlike anyone I've ever known," she said. "She's so well described by what Wendy says about her, that she just comes from the text. (Jen-Ya) comes out of her own text too, the way that she speaks."
"Wait!" was commissioned by the Salt Lake (Utah) Acting Company in March 2000. It premiered in spring 2003. In the fall, it moved to Cleveland's Public Theater, where the Cleveland Plain Dealer named it one of the 10 best plays of the year.
"Jensen has an engagingly off-center sense of humor, while at the same time too often relying on ancient vaudeville and burlesque routines (such as the Abbott and Costello bit about teaching the novice thespian how to act badly)," wrote James Damico in the Cleveland Free Press. "She is also given to improbably stretching the eccentricities of her trailer-park characters even beyond caricature."
Perseverance planned to stage an all-Filipino version of the new musical "The Cannery Project (The Long Season)" this spring, but switched gears when the score wasn't ready.
Maynard-Losh met Jensen at a three-day national conference in 2002 in Dairytown, N.Y., and heard her read. So Maynard-Losh asked her for a script when she was looking for a new play. "Wait!" fit the bill. This is one of Maynard-Losh's final pieces with Perseverance. She's moving to Washington, D.C., in August to take a job at ArenaStage, home of former Perseverance artistic director Molly Smith.
"We really were pretty much open to any style of play, but particularly with this being our 25th anniversary, it's a play about theater and the quirkiness of people that find a home in the theater," Maynard-Losh said. "I realized toward the end of the rehearsal period how appropriate it was for me to work on this place as my last piece here. I think of it as a valentine to the theater, an unsentimental valentine."
Rehearsals began a week late because of the production change. Jensen and Maynard-Losh discussed the finer points of the play on the telephone.
"(Jensen) called it a 'grinny' play rather than a 'yukky' play, but I was actually surprised at how vocal the audience was (Sunday)," Maynard-Losh said. "Generally, it's a very funny play. It's not fluff. It has some underlying truthfulness that is ultimately touching in certain parts. But at the same time, most of the time, it's humorous."
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