The Friendly Hour
Road Theatre Company
There’s a lot of talk these days about what it means to be an American, but at the root of the issue there’s more to that distinction than political rhetoric and a media-friendly soccer mom with fukcyou eyes and a scary smile to match her agenda. If you’d like to get at look at the kind of strength and stoicism that made our country sturdy before those in power realized how easy a people we are to collectively fool, there’s a better outlet out there these days than tuning in to endless CNN, and that’s amazing local treasure Tom Jacobson’s newest play The Friendly Hour, now making its impressive world premiere at the Road.
This wünderkind playwright, whose award-winning Ouroboros, Tainted Blood and Bunbury (which won Jacobson my TicketHolder Award as Best Playwright of 2005) all debuted at the Road, has paid quintessential service to some real unspoken heroes of America from our less jaded past. Utilizing actual transcripts of minutes from a rural South Dakotan women’s social club formed in 1934 as these plain-talkin’, plain livin’ women gather for monthly meetings, share rock collections and fascinate over the industriousness of ant farms during the “entertainment” segment of their get-togethers, and create “tasty lunches” for one another over the next 70 years when the final two members choose to disband when their golden years begin to tarnish, The Friendly Hour also chronicles the drastic changes in our national history during that period of time.
Clearly, these are familiar people for Jacobson to conjure, as some of his own South Dakotan family members were actually part of The Friendly Hour—the descendants of some even present for the play’s opening night—but that doesn’t mean his play provides a sugary homage. As generally valiant as these women are portrayed, they definitely aren’t faultless creatures, often willing to fight for the wrong ideals over the decades together than to speak out for what is right. As the country and its mores change over the years, so do the members of the club, making an early controversial comment from one transplanted new attendee that Eleanor Roosevelt had balls seem innocent enough until the ladies, now in their advanced 80s, talk about Hillary Clinton as someone who doesn’t like anything regular women do, explaining in their unadorned logic that must be why ol’ Bill “always has that look in his eye.”
As with anything written by Jacobson, the playwright again assigns himself intricate narrative challenges that would have send Williams back to the loonybin, giving his characters a penchant for talking excitedly over one another—that is when they’re not cold-shouldering someone who has made what another club member considers a verbal faux pas. Even when Jacobson’s dialogue is as typically spartan and economical as the down-to-earth lives of these Friendly ladies unfold, under the highly kinetic guidance of director Mark Bringelson, who keeps his actors constantly on the move on Desma Murphy’s impressively roughhewn board game of a set, the ensemble cast of five is simply remarkable.
Ann Noble is the anchor as Dorcus Briggle, a bursting free thinker who fights at every turn with the stiff-backed Effie Voss (Kate Mines), while Opal Zweifel and Wava Jamtgaard (Deana Barone and Mara Marini) work hard to keep the peace. And in a tour de force performance playing about a dozen women who weave in and out of the girls’ circle, Bettina Zacar should get awards just for quick changes, not to even mention her ability to switch from one elaborate character to another.
As is usual with anything debuting from the Road, a company concentrating on new works that suffers its obligatory missteps along with its many, many great successes over the past 17 years, every production value in The Friendly Hour is exemplary, from Derrick McDaniel’s dreamlike lighting to Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design and, most notably, Lisa D. Burke’s incredible costuming which is as impressive in the play’s ever-changing period detailing as it is in its sheer volume. Just how many Road members are backstage providing service as dressers is a piece of information not provided in the show’s program, but the numbers of such volunteers must be legion.
The Friendly Hour’s powerful smalltown survivors are the real strong and stoic American ladies we should all be celebrating and honoring, something Jacobson has done with his unembellished yet lyrical and sweetly bucolic text. Although the narrowed eyes of these fiercely local lifelong friends might be just as revealing as the telltale looks from any current political candidate, their resolve to get through their often exigent smalltown lives despite the odds is infinitely more sincere than anyone we’re asked to accept into our trust today.
The Friendly Hour plays through Nov. 1 at The Road Theatre, located within the Lankershim Arts Center at 5108 Lankershim Bl. in the NoHo Arts District; for tickets, call 866.811.4111, or visit www.roadtheatre.org