Community theater set to raise curtain |

Community theater set to raise curtain

Susan Wood, Tribune staff writer

Play time for the Valhalla Players started long before their first performance of “Steel Magnolias,” set for Memorial Day weekend at the Tallac-site Boathouse Theater.

The six women of the South Lake Tahoe theater company have drawn close to each other and their roles while rehearsing for the sentimental comedy-drama that encapsulates beauty behind the range of human emotions.

“You go with the ebb and flow of the play. It’s really emotional,” cast member Diana Evans said.

She’s joined by Jane Griffin, Carmen Neidig, Michelle Allen, Ann Swallow and Susanna Gascoine, who never held back on their performances — in and out of the shining lights.

What distinguishes how all-women casts interact?

“We just sit around and talk about (men),” Griffin joked, editing an earlier comment that referred to anatomy. The other cast members howled in laughter, as they gathered on stage for rehearsal before digging into an enchilada and carrot cake potluck.

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The cast has found more than professional fulfillment with the cathartic endeavor set in a beauty shop in the southeast.

They’ve found the joy of working together again, returning to the theater stage May 23 with a strengthened bond and a willingness to take themselves and others on a journey into the triumphs and tragedy of every woman’s nightmare. (You’ll need to see the play to find out.)

“The lines are funny. But unfortunately, on a serious note, we’ve identified with the characters in many ways in the loss of someone we love. We all identified with it,” said Ann Swallow, a local marriage and family therapist who’s all too familiar with grief issues from her clients. She plays M’Lynn.

“There was a lot of hugging going on that night,” said play producer and director Stan Bautista, who graduated from the American Conservatory Theater. The play’s assistant director, Don Nofte, is also an Emmy Award-winning television director.

Sally Field and Julia Roberts led an all-star cast in the movie, but the play has been based on the original script. So don’t expect the bunny-suit scene, Cascoine said.

“There are no animals, no men and no children,” she said, leaving a little room for the imagination.

The ties between the women show how good friends can pull no punches in their honesty.

In one scene, Gascoine called Clairee, played by Neidig, “too twisted for color TV.”

In the play, there are the creature comforts of down-home living in a small town and southern hospitality.

This means perfecting the southern dialect.

Some cast members worked on the drawl through audiotapes and coaching by relatives. Evans, who takes the stage again this season juggling motherhood of a 10-month-old baby girl, Madelynn, took a field trip to North Carolina.

Evans plays Annelle, whom she describes as analytical and very religious.

“You mean boring,” a fellow cast member blurts out.

“She’s always on her knees,” Griffin, who started in theater at 8, continued with the banter.

Like the other cast members, Griffin expressed cautious appreciation at having her Alpine Animal Hospital coworkers pledge their attendance. Veterinarian Kevin Willitts said he would get the pet-doctor crew to buy the whole front row “to make me nervous,” she said.

The performance, run by the Tahoe Tallac Association, begins a promising season with a new executive director who plans on putting an extra effort into marketing the show. Alice Kane sent out 130 compact discs as promotional tools to Bay Area and Reno media.

At the same time, Kane recognizes the nature of small-town culture.

“I was in Home Depot asking if they want to take out an ad in our program guide,” she said.

Her message to the community is simple: “You want art, here it is.”

“I think we have a good start. I think what’s needed this time is to allow them to cut loose on their own,” Kane said, characterizing the hands-off approach on direction as “letting artists be artists.”

These are tough times for nonprofit organizations staging cultural events, but South Lake Tahoe’s have two advantages. Kane mentioned the small, community feel that will support the arts — especially when there’s a lack thereof — and the ability to tap into an influx of visitors.

“You can’t look at it as moneymaking. We look at it as something the community can support,” Kane said, referring to the goal for many groups to operate in the black in challenging economic times.

To express her point, she used the words of Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts: ‘The true wealth of any nation is its culture. We are not remembered for our armies or our money. We are remembered for our music, our literature, our dance — our cultural contribution to the world.”

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at