The Column Online


by Steven Dietz

Circle Theatre

Directed by Robin Armstrong
Stage Manager - Sara Harris
Set Design - Clare Floyd DeVries
Costume Design - Robin Armstrong
Lighting Design - John Leach
Sound Design - David H.M. Lambert
Properties Design - John Harvey

CAST in alphabetical order:

John S. Davies - Walter
Lisa Fairchild - Becky
Mark Fickert - Joe
Stan Graner - Steve
Fritz Ketchum - Ginger
Curtis Raymond Shideler - Chris
Meg Shideler - Kenni

Reviewed Performance: 7/30/2011

Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

It all began with a birthday. Seattle realtor Charlie Staadecker wanted something really special for his wife Benita's upcoming milestone celebration. She, as some women tend to do, replied she needed nothing ? they had their health, the children were all taken care of. . . . blah, blah, blah ? right? Being a intuitive husband, Charlie knew he could not let her request ride, and through a certain event found himself talking to Kurt Beattie, Artistic Director at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) where Benita was a board member. Beattie had wanted to start a program of commissioned works, had lacked the details and, to kick start the whole thing, in walked Charlie. Don't you just love the muses when at work?! So Beattie contacted Steve Dietz, a prolific playwright now residing in Austin as a professor of writing and directing. He had worked with ACT for many years and he and his family still call Seattle home.

Commissioned by Mr. Staadecker whose only request was not to make the play "dark" and assigned by Beattie, Dietz was off and running. Almost two years to the day from when it all began birthed Becky's New Car now playing at Circle Theatre at Sundance Square in Fort Worth.

I describe this play as a comedy/drama with a straight-forward plot but sharp right and left turns that make the trip more exhilarating and unexpected. Rebecca (Becky) is a rather un-unique woman in her middle years, and seemingly happy being wife and mom to an easy-going blue collar husband and son still going for that degree at age 26. Becky is office manager at an auto dealership and spends a lot of her day babysitting both impatient customers and an overly grieving widower co-worker who relies on Becky to spoon feed him love and encouragement on a daily basis. It's no wonder she daydreams of driving away in one of those magnificent machines on the lot - off to a new adventure; a new life.

Becky stays late yet one more evening, finishing other employees' paperwork, when up knocks Walter, running very late and wanting to purchase nine cars as employee gifts for his own company's annual banquet ? right now. Through a series of miscommunications and misadventures, a mistaken identity and mistaken death, this plays "what if" for real.

Now if that didn't sound very funny or comedic you'd be correct ? or not. The humor in Becky's New Car came from the ordinary, everyday banality of life; the things the people in your life did that drove you over the edge and yet were the same ones you joked with at work as you commiserated about your problems, or came home to each evening. Underlying the everyday and ordinary, however, ran two separate veins of thought. One flowed with the power of secrets ? accidental, innocent secrets that escalated so rapidly out of control, and the instant karma that felled all in its wake. The other vein lay even closer, just under the skin; one of wealth, culture and class distinction coursing parallel to our current societal and economic ills.

Playwright Dietz lightly tripped back and forth from narrative past tense on the part of several characters to present tense almost instantaneously which kept the audience at attention and in the game. He added several audience participations such as helping Becky place an item offstage, collating papers or getting her dressed. These "asides" brought us out of spectator mode and back into our own world we had just gone to the theatre to try and forget!

Even though its title is Becky's New Car, this production made its mark with a well-seasoned ensemble. Director Robin Armstrong must have had the luxury to hand pick her actors they fit their roles so easily with nary one out of place. In alphabetical order as befits an ensemble, John S. Davies played Walter, the wealthy yet socially awkward entrepreneur who unknowingly began all the secretive miscommunication. I was grateful Davies did not lean toward the rich buffoon, a much easier caricature, but instead gave Walter intelligence, heart, passion and a bit of down to earth good `ole boy charm.

Lisa Fairchild, as Becky, went for something beyond the passive TV mom template. The script had her speak directly to the audience, inviting them first into her home and then her workplace. Fairchild played Becky openly with nothing hidden or reserved, even with those secrets. Her interaction with the audience was graciously light and easy, showing great improvisation skills she'll undoubtedly need during the run of this production. Another actor well-trained in improv was Mark Fickert as husband Joe. His soft, flowing, never ruffled demeanor made it natural for Joe to offer a beer to an audience member then tease him to not be a wuss and open the bottle himself. Fickert's Joe was a tad too laid back which took his angry, frustrated outburst to left field with no warm up. But then again, sometimes love could do that to you.

Stan Graner's character Steve was essentially his double. He played the role like he was talking to a dear friend ? open, vulnerable, pathetic and so achingly real. Dietz wrote some one-liner gems and Graner was smart and talented enough to let them shine on their own and not mess with those jewels. With the sophisticated name of Fritz Ketchum, she played the recently penniless socialite on the move, Ginger, with equally restrained sophistication. Never falling for the "drunk enough to say anything" shtick, Ketchum humorously maneuvered Ginger around the men, oh yes, but her dignity above all else made her character that much more compelling and sad.

The chemistry between Meg Shideler and Curtis Raymond Shideler was practically lethal ? being newly wed could be a reason ? so it was good they were cast as one of the love interests. Kenni, Walter's easy inheritance daughter, played by Shideler, was thankfully likeable and intelligent. But Shideler also clearly understood Kenni's world and displayed the wealthy's sometime bubble world naivety when she mistook Becky, wearing probably her best dress, as one of the party caterers.

A quick line, casually tossed away, and the class door was slammed shut. Mr. Shideler played Becky and Joe's son Chris, the still a child-man who made it his duty to educate others with his "just read it in my textbook" philosophical musings. Clearly in love and clearly out of touch with reality, this Shideler allowed Chris to be the innocent - unaware and unable to recognize the implications of his rapidly changing own personal universe.

Clare Floyd DeVries' set was a mish mash of bland large ottoman
and couch with fully stocked mini fridge behind, connected to
Becky's office of desks and chairs by a metal and plexiglass
railing "hallway".

The odd back wall curtain and the railing's purpose came into fruition before Act II when the wall was flipped around to reveal Walter's lake home balcony with curtained window and door.

I loved that either Dietz's script or Armstrong's interpretation/
improvisation allowed Becky to travel quickly back and forth from home to office, with the aid of the board operator's illumination. John Leach literally took all his comedy cues from the script and put obvious emphasis raising and lowering the lights on the actors to humorous effect.

Armstrong costumed her actors simply in everyday casual attire, as the inhabitants of a prosperous yet laid back "city very much like Seattle" might dress ? with a wink to Northwest grunge in the scuffed overly large hiking boots of Steve.

Like a good radio theatre sound effects person, Sound Designer David H.M. Lambert made the water leak to drip and the lake to lap on the shore clearly and blessedly from where it should be coming onstage. And if there weren't actually any car sounds, I'll credit him anyway for making me think so! Didn't John Harvey have fun bringing on the beer, soda, cheese balls and chips, and all the desk knick-knacks. His dinner party cocktails looked yummy.

The freedom Director Robin Armstrong presented to her actors was the catalysis they needed to take themselves to another acting level. The naturalness, the ease with which they enveloped their characters went beyond Dietz's words.

I don't know how much she directed to the comedy but the audience certainly picked up on it and responded with uproarious laughter. I however found myself in an odd place emotionally. I'm more a drama kind of person, and while recognizing the humor from the plot and the characters, I was not joining in on the laughter anywhere near the others' level.

There were more than a few times I started to tear up while those around me were practically rolling in the aisles. That's a lot of complexity for a fairly simple premise and I had to applaud Dietz but mainly Armstrong who dug below the obvious comedy surface and came up with a richer, more insightful production that I would have imagined on face value.

As Charlie and Benita go to each and every opening weekend of Becky's New Car ? 18 to date and three more coming up soon ? I had the honor of meeting them as they sat down next to me in the theatre. Charlie told me that loosely-based parts of their lives as well as Dietz's life, including a death in his family, found their way into the play. Steve Dietz was quoted as saying "Humor is truth" and he wrote Becky's New Car many truthful layers deep.

Circle Theatre's production generously touched on each and every level. Any of those would have made for a nice evening of theatre, but taken as a whole this play had the makings of a small masterpiece equal in any collection to the likes of the classics. No audience member would walk away describing this play exactly the same or have the same final overall feeling. What better accolade could be bestowed on a theatre piece than one that made us think.

Becky's New Car
Circle Theatre, 230 West Fourth Street, Ft Worth, TX 76102
Runs through August 27th

Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Saturday matinees at 3:00 pm.

Tickets are priced $20 - $30 depending on the performance and seating. Students and seniors (65+) receive a $5 discount as do groups of 10 or more on a regularly priced ticket.
High School and college students with valid ID may also purchase half-price tixs 30 minutes before performance time.