Into these folksy lives, Martians must fall

Light comedy captures N.C. store amid Welles' 1938 radio scare

November 02, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

Prince George's Little Theatre's 48th season - the second at Bowie Playhouse - got off to an amusingly nostalgic start with Ed Simpson's light, low-key comedy The Battle of Shallowford.

The comedy, written in 1989, is set in rural North Carolina on the evening of Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 that brought fears of a Martian invasion to a large portion of the listening audience.

The action takes place in a general store where proprietor Burton Mock and his 17-year-old daughter, Ruthie, host Sunday evening regulars who include Roy, a spirited World War I veteran, garrulous, opinionated Clunette, intuitive and stoic Newsome Jarvis and Jarvis' dimwitted brother, Doodad.

Lonny, a teenage science-fiction fan, hangs around the store to be near Ruthie, as does football hero Dewey Sowers. Despite having little in common with the others, urbane ex-city dweller and current choir director Fred Martin eventually assumes brief leadership of the group.

Burton, a single parent, is content with his predictable small-town life and discourages Ruthie from pursuing her dream of finding a secretarial job in New York. Lonny also dreams of big-city life, while the older characters comfortably enjoy each others' company. They engage in good-natured banter with Roy and delight in baiting Clunette, who reacts with comic predictability.

This show, which ran for two weekends and closed Sunday, was skillfully directed by Keith Brown, who has been involved with Little Theatre for 28 years and has directed productions since 1989. Here he assembled a skilled cast, drew excellent performances from each one and paced the action briskly so that the entertainment never slowed.

This was no easy task in handling what is basically a thin comedy. Much of the action takes place offstage, and the central Welles' radio drama is offered in such brief snatches that it requires prior knowledge of the 1938 broadcast and its long-ago impact.

Grace Gasner, a recent graduate of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, made a stunning Little Theatre debut as Ruthie Mock. She conveyed her character's basic decency, devotion to her father, desire for a more exciting life elsewhere and, later, her liberating decision to experience life fully before the Martians invade.

In the role of Burton Mock, Mike O'Donnell - a high school teacher and a Bowie native - gave a solid performance. He showed understanding and affection for his daughter, contentment with his life as a postmaster and general store owner, likability and appreciation of his friends.

Veteran actor Ron Vardiman gave life to Roy Sprinkle, especially when sparring with Clunette. Larry Simmons, seen last season in the Little Theatre's Lying in State creates an excitable Clunette, who grew hilarious when riled up by Vardiman's Roy Sprinkle.

Seen last season as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, Zachary Brewster-Geisz took on a much different role as sci-fi buff Lonny Hutchins, convincingly portraying a 17-year-old boy experiencing his first love.

Veteran actor Patrick Ready played choir director Fred Martin, who didn't fit in until assuming leadership of the gun-toting group planning to save the country.

High school football hero Dewey Sowers was amusingly played by 14-year-old Lucas English-Arredondo. In real life, he is the son of Eddie Arredondo, who played Newsome Jarvis, and of the show's producer, Rose English-Arredondo.

As Doodad Jarvis, Eric Siegel projected comic appeal in a role that required strong acting without dialogue.

The set designed by Keith Brown, who did double duty as director, evoked the Depression era with a general store filled with authentic props to bring the 1930s to life.

This show can sometimes drag in the second act, offering only snippets of Welles' famous broadcast, which is heard only by the mute Doodad Jarvis, and with most of the cast disappearing to go fight the invading Martians. But to the credit of the director and crew, the show was enjoyable.

Next on tap for Prince George's Little Theatre is Heidi, set for mid-December. The next production at Bowie Playhouse will be 2nd Star Productions' Pirates of Penzance opening for a five-weekend run Nov. 9.

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