Victory Theatre Center
In the past 25 years since renowned LA theatre director and acting teacher/coach Maria Gobetti opened the Victory Theatre Center, she and co-founder, co-artistic director, co…er, well, husband… Tom Ormeny have struggled tirelessly to bring great new plays and introduce fascinating new playwrights to all of us culture-starved denizens of our creatively impoverished town. Through all those years, Gobetti has sacrificed one major thing for her art: her own acting career.
Now, finally, Gobetti has accepted a role in one of her theatre’s own productions, the west coast debut of Steppenwolf transplantee Taking Care—and a brave decision it was. In Mia McCullough’s bittersweet “dramady,” Gobetti definitely plays against type as an eightysomething-year-old Rogers Park (my fellow Chicagoans will get that reference immediately) Jewish mother insistent on providing the daily care of her mentally-challenged grown son Benny (Tim Sullens), whose company she describes as like “talking to a potato.”
In 2001 or so, my friend Jeremy Lelliott and I tried to get rights to do Equus in LA and had asked Gobetti if she would play Hester, the magistrate, if we did the production. The rights were restricted back then in anticipation of a major revival in London and New York (which, presumably, after all these years is what Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe are starring in right now in the West End), but although Gobetti had nervously agreed to take on the role if it happened, her alternate bouts of excitement and terror at the thought of returning to acting back then was obvious.
So to find that Gobetti’s sudden return to the stage would be to play a woman waaaaaay past her own age and without any of the style and youthful energy (and perhaps a dash of vanity?) for which she is known, was a knockout surprise to me, except for two considerations that helped it make sense: First, it’s clear that the bond formed last year, when Sullens and his director-wife Carri brought their dynamic and much-acclaimed presentation of Orange Flower Water to the Little Victory as a co-production, spawned a friendship and trust that made Gobetti get back up thar’ where she belongs. Secondly, this lady simply reminds me what courageous animals theatrefolk are and how great artists creating in any medium are never afraid to tackle the most difficult challenge, masochists-in-training that we are.
Luckily for all of us—especially those dumb enough to take on the task of critiquing our friends—Gobetti is instantly transcendent in Taking Care, particularly arresting in her delicate ability to gradually age even more as her character progresses (or digresses) from a slightly frail senior in 1996 to 2003, when Ma is all but gone from Alzheimer’s and unable to completely recoup from a broken hip. And under Carri Sullens’ subtle directorial hand, Tim Sullens again offers another wonderful Little Vic performance as well as Benny, a subtle yet super-strong counterpoint to Gobetti’s feisty senior citizen.
The most impressive thing about Taking Care is that the Victory’s production is basically better than the play. First and foremost, these aren’t people one might choose to spend an evening eavesdropping on if given a chance—as a matter of fact, if Ma and Bennie should ever invite me to Thanksgiving dinner, remind me to say no. Without Gobetti’s strength and signature humor shining through McCullough’s often predictable situations and melodramatic dialogue, coupled with Tim Sullens’ ability to dig deeper than his character is written and Carri Sullens’ clever concept of making the insufferably excessive scene changes more palatable by having her actors accomplish them themselves in character, this could be exceedingly somber and even dull material.
To me, the biggest problem is McCullough’s decision to utilize her annoying string of continuous short “takes”—some only a few minutes in length, more tableaux than scene—to cover her play’s seven-year period, when Taking Care could unfold without the confines of its avoidable timeline and eliminating all those insufferable blue-lit interruptions guaranteed to pull the viewer right out of the story. As it is, the scenes become more filmic than theatrical, robbing both the actors and their audience of a flow that could make the piece far more absorbing.
But beyond any flaw inherent in this material, Taking Care is still a production to see and celebrate, particularly to herald the Ormenys’ continued heartfelt association with the exceptionally gifted Tim and Carri Sullens, to gape at yet another precision Victory Theatre Center LA debut and, above all, to cheer the return to the boards of Maria Gobetti, who easily proves she can put her impressive talents where her mouth has been for the last quarter of a century.
Taking Care plays through June 17 at the Little Victory, 3324 W. Victory Bl., Burbank; for tickets, call 818.841.5422.