With dozens of major credits as a screenwriter stretching over four decades, Jerry Di Pego could be coasting through this winter at home in Santa Ynez. But he’s not. Instead, Di Pego has three plays opening at nearly the same time, one of which, 154 & Paradise, is set here in Santa Barbara and opens on Friday, January 23, at Center Stage Theater. What could possibly have precipitated this left turn off the screenwriting highway and onto the stage? “I lost my shyness at age 73 and finally took an acting class,” said Di Pego when I spoke to him by phone last week. “Here I’ve been working with actors my entire adult life, but I’d never really joined them.” Since that class (with instructor and 154 director Peter Frisch), Di Pego has written four full-length plays.
154 & Paradise, which draws on a wide range of techniques and material, pits a central authority figure, the mysterious Examiner, against a semicircle of citizens, all of whom have at least one thing in common — they know something about an accident that just occurred near the intersection of Route 154 and Paradise Road. “Someone has died, and all of these people had some contact with the deceased,” Di Pego explained, adding that, “by overhearing this questioning, we eventually learn a little more about what actually happened.” But, as in Phenomenon, the 1996 John Travolta film that Di Pego wrote about a character who acquires supernatural powers, there’s a sense that something more may be going on than meets the eye.
“The human scale speaks to me,” Di Pego asserted, “but I also really like big ‘What if?’ stories. I try to join the everyday pleasure that people feel when solving a puzzle to a deeper message. The ‘Paradise’ of the play’s title is Paradise Road, but it’s paradise, too.” Meanwhile Frisch — who has cast some top Santa Barbara talent in key roles, including Rich Hoag as the Examiner — is thrilled to be working on a piece that he sees as “part Twilight Zone, part Six Characters in Search of an Author, and part 12 Angry Men.” Di Pego praises his acting teacher as a creative collaborator, dubbing this production the result of a “true artistic partnership.”
The partners agree on what’s at the core of this magical realist procedural drama, and that is, in Di Pego’s words, “the power of human contact.” Over the course of the evening, the semicircle onstage comes to represent all the different collisions that have occurred in the past and all the places where human lives intersect. By putting this work on at the city’s most intimate venue, Frisch and Di Pego will give theater fans a chance to enter into this magic circle and see if they can in fact reach paradise by cruising along Route 154 — and what it will cost if they make the trip.
154 & Paradise is at Center Stage Theater from Friday, January 23-Sunday, February 1. For tickets and information, call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.