In late September 2016, an original play called On Shaky Ground premiered at Ignite! Community Theatre. It was written by and also starred Molly Allen, perhaps most widely known locally as a morning radio co-host on KZZU 92.9 FM.
On Shaky Ground wasn't Allen's first foray into playwriting and acting. Nor would it be her last. Before long, she was installed as the resident playwright at Stage Left Theater, where she's been producing new work that now includes another full-length play, Closing It Up.
Like its predecessor, Closing It Up has an ensemble cast and "deals with relationships in a very real fashion," Allen says.
"This particular show is about three siblings who are burying their parents who died in a tragic parasailing accident in Mexico. After a safe life of no smoking and no drinking, they decide to go parasailing, and they die. Both of them."
Following the accident, the three siblings return home to put their late parents' affairs in order. Andrea, played by Mary Starkey, is the eldest, a Hollywood publicist who "has been out of the house forever." Scotty (Andrew Biviano), the youngest of the three, arrives with Marcus (Mark Pleasant), his "very flamboyant boyfriend, who Andrea, the older sister, does not like."
Allen herself plays the middle sister.
"I stayed home and had kids and I live three miles from my parents' house in Winnetka, Illinois," she says of her character. "I kind of gave myself the boring part."
While the three of them are busy making funeral plans, two neighbor sisters (Marty Kittleson and Penny Lucas) drop in, as does Aunt Bernie (Mary Jo Rudolf), "who we find out may have had something to do with why they were parasailing in the first place," she explains. Other family secrets come to light, too, such as the fact that Scotty had been cast out on account of his sexual orientation and Andrea "has a whole past" that had been kept under wraps.
"But I don't want to give too much away," says Allen.
Directing this premiere of Closing It Up is Heather McHenry-Kroetch, who's previously overseen productions of A Piece of My Heart and Back of the Throat at Stage Left. She admits to being "a little trepidatious," at least initially, about directing Allen as a performer in her own work.
"I was wondering how that would be, but I tell you, I just keep forgetting... that she's the playwright. Sometimes I say some things that I'm like, 'Oh, wait. Is that how you meant it?' Because I've already decided," she laughs.
"Molly's so good at being an actress in this show, and she's not here as the playwright. So it really hasn't been odd like you'd think. Being an actress in a play is hard work, you know, and she's got to memorize her lines the same as everybody. It's not like she's off book because she wrote it."
McHenry-Kroetch says that she and Allen tend to hold "separate conversations" about the play and authorial intent after rehearsal is over. And though the temptation might exist for Allen to continue tinkering with dialogue and characterization, "almost zero is being fine tuned or tweaked" at this stage. Some of that is because Closing It Up went through a workshopping process.
"I sat down and read it in the backyard of several people's houses," Allen says. "And then I actually had a reading where I invited about 50 people to come. I gave them slips of paper and just said, 'What doesn't make sense? Which relationships are you buying? Which aren't you buying?' The majority of people had a problem with the ending, and so I changed the ending. It's a lot different now."
Allen says that the play remains "a little on the darker side," and McHenry-Kroetch agrees, describing it as "a lighthearted dark comedy."
"It's a comedy, of course, and it's got bad language, of course, because it's me," Allen says. Fundamentally, however, Closing It Up "dives into a lot of the things that people deal with" as members of families and communities.
"Everybody's going to have a character they can identify with, whether it's the one who ran away and did everything wrong, or the gay one who got disowned, or the perfect one who stayed and was boring and having problems of her own. And the sibling thing. And the loss of a parent. And the quirky neighbors who stop by who are just stuck in a time way past," she says.
McHenry-Kroetch says the show stands out for being "well paced and funny and interesting," as well as for its novelty.
"Just having it be a new show is exciting for theater people — people who know that you don't always get handed a great script. For regular audiences, it's entertaining and funny. And we're seeing to that, I guess." ♦
Closing It Up • Oct. 11-21; Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $20 • Stage Left Theater • 108 W. Third • spokanestageleft.org • 838-9727