It’s been a somewhat discouraging summer for theater in Santa Barbara. First Shakespeare Santa Barbara was forced to cancel their annual production due to lack of funds, and then the mighty Rubicon found itself in a similar predicament in regard to its final production of the season. Not yet desperate, but still in the mood for some good news, I headed south to Santa Monica where Kit Steinkellner, a recent UCLA MFA with some strong Santa Barbara connections – her family is very active in the theater here, and she taught a screenwriting workshop for teens here over the summer – has a very interesting new full-length play at the Powerhouse Theatre through Labor Day weekend. I was glad I made the trip, and you will be too if you are lucky enough to get a ticket to Adeline’s Play, one of the best original plays I have seen in the past five years.
Adeline’s Play takes place in a small town in Illinois in the depths of the Great Depression. The town of Flanagan’s single factory makes ladies’ garments, and business is far from booming. Many of the men in town have given up on finding work and piece their lives together day-to-day from their base camp in Flanagan’s Hooverville.
When Adeline Danner (Coco Kleppinger) returns to Flanagan after a sojourn as an actress in Hollywood, everyone seems delighted to see her. She’s been in a famous movie – the classic comedy It Happened One Night – and as a hatcheck girl she not only had a speaking part, she got to touch Clark Gable’s hand while taking his hat. It’s not stardom; as Adeline herself is quick to point out, she was an actress, not a star. But it is a lot for Flanagan, and the teenage narrator of the opening sequence, Dot (Dina Percia) could hardly be more excited when Adeline announces her plan to produce a play in the Flanagan Town Hall’s Multi-purpose room. Other enthusiasts for the drama include Buddy Walters (Isaac Wade), a shy man who has a play mostly written a very corny piece called “The Lady in Blue” – and a crush on Adeline you can see a mile away. The handsome, homeless, and jobless young drifter Frank Sherman (Kyle Cadman) also wants to act, although his motivations are less clear, at least at first.
The final two pieces in this puzzle for six actors are the problems. CB Baldwin (Ariel Goldberg) plays an unpopular town official who uses his bureaucratic power to muscle his way into a small role, and who remains a kind of gadfly to the very end. The great foil to the glamorous Adeline, and the play’s mighty center of Depression-era gravity is the bone-tired factory worker Elna Danner (Sarah Watson). Elna shows up at the auditions to tell her sister Adeline that she ought to find a job, and leaves having captured the leading role, all without ever revealing the real source of her profoundly pessimistic worldview.
What follows is two and a half hours of absolutely stunning dramatic writing and stagecraft. The premise, which is that the process of putting on the play, no matter how bad the script is, will force the various truths these characters are concealing to the surface, is as old as the theater, but the execution of this time-honored device has seldom been handled as expertly, or with as much feeling, as it is here. The show opens with a uniformed usher at the head of the center aisle singing a lonely a cappella version of the Depression song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and the play’s dialogue consistently attains to the same heartbreaking pitch of sweetness tinged with despair one associates with early jazz. When Elna begins to find places in the script that allow her to voice her own troubles from behind the mask of her character, the words she speaks break over the threshold of representation and rush out with the immediacy and vitality of the blues. Steinkellner and director Amanda Glaze have got this cast planted deep in the middle of a situation that teems with life and feeling, and when they negotiate the changes brought on by the play within the play their desperate lives are illuminated from within.
The fluidity and genuine wit of the dialogue is more than amply supported by a choice dramatic structure. In the second act, the stakes grow inexorably higher as the deadline of opening night nears. Neither Adeline nor her gloomy sister Elna are quite what they seem, and the entire cast is caught in a dilemma that puts each character through an emotional crucible of difficult personal decisions.
Steinkellner has already won several of the country’s most prestigious awards for drama. With Adeline’s Play she has created the kind of script that will still be sought after decades from now – as far in the future as today was when the Great Depression took place.