Back to the future, forward to the past: Bob and Joan Welch are acting in a Spokane theater again, and Michael Weaver is directing in one. They're just not at the same theaters.
While the Welches open in Painting Churches at Interplayers on Sept. 9, Weaver's directing the premiere show at his own theater now, the Actor's Repertory Theatre of the Inland Northwest: Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves opens at the Spartan Theater of Spokane Falls Community College tomorrow night and runs through Sept. 12.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn, arguably the most commercially successful comic playwright of all time, has churned out nearly two plays a year over the past 37 years. Nearly always they are comedies about middle-class British suburban married life. Because he's famous for changing gimmicks from play to play, he doesn't get formulaic; because his plays have a heart, they aren't merely comedies that elicit a few chuckles and then fade away.
Interplayers went on an Ayckbourn binge in the '90s, starting with How the Other Half Loves in'91 and followed by Taking Steps, Absurd Person Singular, Intimate Exchanges, Bedroom Farce, Absent Friends and Season's Greetings. And now Weaver is back at it, directing Other Half with a cast of six. Although Ayckbourn's 1971 comedy spoofs the kind of swinging couples who wore pastel polyester, Weaver calls it not a sex farce but a "relationship farce."
In it, two married people are having an affair; to cover it up, they tell their spouses that they're out counseling yet another troubled couple. Bob Phillips deviously tells his wife Teresa that Mary Detweiler is having an affair; Frank Foster mistakenly tells his wife Fiona that William Detweiler is being unfaithful to Mary. In reality, Bob and Fiona are playing around, while the poor clueless Detweilers (played by Damon Mentzer and Caryn Hoaglund) are guilty of nothing other than being dimwits.
The potential for comic misunderstandings seems pretty high, but Weaver emphasizes the humanity underneath: "These are characters we care about -- they're real people," he says. "We want to see what happens to them, not just for the next laugh, but because we care about them. None of them are evil -- they just make some mistakes. These are people who are like us but who at times do things that are beneath them -- and therefore beneath us, too."
At a recent rehearsal, Weaver darts around the stage in shorts and baseball cap while giving notes to the actors. He wants to make sure that the pauses in "a really uncomfortable conversation" among three of the characters are given their full comic weight, then makes a quick note to stage manager Jeremy Lindholm about the sound of onstage doorbells. In the next moment, Weaver's working out the exact stage business when Mentzer is struggling with a wine bottle between his legs while Jane Fellows, as Teresa, is coming to a sudden and important realization.
Suddenly he stops short, wheels and addresses the cast: "Ayckbourn isn't like other playwrights," he announces. "With other playwrights, every line is important and needs to be heard. But Ayckbourn writes like people actually talk." Weaver explains how his actors need to deal with throwaway lines: "Some lines have no importance, which gives them a different kind of importance," says the director. "Does that make sense?"
Now he's back to the concerns of stage business: the removal of the corkscrew, the rearrangement of crockery after it gets tossed through a doorway and offstage, repeatedly, by Teresa, the deceived -- and irate -- wife.
"Terry doesn't lie," says Fellows. "After she discovers the betrayal, she actively wants Bob to suffer for it."
Bob is played by Patrick Treadway, who has been acting in Spokane for 15 years -- he was Huck Finn in two different productions of Big River. "[Bob's] communication style is limited to the passive-aggressive," Treadway notes. "Even his deceit is a way of communicating problems to [Teresa]." By having an affair, says Treadway, Bob "thinks he's teaching her a lesson, getting a point across. The thought that he could just come out and say something never occurs to him."
In real life, Fellows is married to Phelps L'Hommedieu; in Other Half, they play the two deceived spouses, clueless Frank and soon-to-be-irate Teresa. The couple have appeared in several Interplayers shows, both separately and together, including Bedroom Farce, Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Collected Stories and Wings.
"Frank is interesting," says Weaver. "He's instantly derailed -- you mention a new topic to him, and off he goes. That's perfect for farce. And Fiona [Frank's wife, played by Page Byers] uses that against him. She manipulates him. But he's very childlike, and audiences like that."
ARt is childlike too: It's in its infancy. Bringing this moment about -- the premiere of a new resident professional theater, housed at SFCC -- has taken a lot of effort. According to Managing Director Grant Smith, the community clamored for it. "Our donors and subscribers have said clearly and loudly that they want this new theater, regardless of location," he says. "They're willing to put their trust and confidence in us. So support has been phenomenal."
ARt will repay that community support with economic impact. Smith points to the number of people employed by the new theater -- in addition to the artistic and managing directors, there are a box office manager, sales staff, stage managers, the technical director, production manager, costumers, lighting director, designers and actors -- and he admits, like any new employer, to a bit of sweat over having to meet a payroll.
"We're about 25 percent subscribed -- that's extraordinary for a brand-new venture. The fact that we have subscribers proves that this is a viable enterprise. In Michael Weaver, they have a known quantity -- someone who acted and directed at Interplayers for 18 seasons. They have a reason to trust us."
So what's the long-range plan at ARt? Smith gets right to the point: "In less than 10 years," he says, "we will have our own space downtown." Finding a permanent home for ARt is perhaps the most important part of Smith's mission, but he mentions other potential developments as well: events (both theatrical presentations and fund-raisers) planned for the February-March gap between ARt's fourth and fifth shows this season, The Drawer Boy and Blithe Spirit. He would also like to see the addition of a sixth show to ensuing seasons.
ARt is off to a good start. Smith recalls how "the other morning, I told the cast that starting a new theater like this is a big adventure -- exciting, but a big risk, too -- and that Michael and I felt privileged and honored to have actors like you join us in the journey and so on. And they were like, 'No, we're the ones who feel privileged. We're glad to asked us to be in your very first play.' And I was so touched by that."
With How the Other Half Loves, ARt is likely to touch a lot of people, sending Spokane theater folk forward into the past.