The Elite Theatre Company is a nice little seaside wooden building, nestled near a marina. A converted maritime museum that has a homey, lived in feel, which makes it the perfect venue for their current production of To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. The story of a man, named David and his family residing in a coastal, seaside wooden house, that has a homey, lived in feel that David treats almost like a museum to the memory of his departed wife, Gillian. The Elite is always doing a great job of creating sets that really put you in the environment of the show, and this is no exception. Oh, and Gillian's death is not a spoiler, you learn this moments into the show- actually if you have seen the movie of the same name, you already knew that. With this production the cast and crew of the Elite open their doors for you to come visit a very unique sort of birthday party.
I would love to rave all day about Bill Walthall, who plays David. His highs and lows dynamically performed with tempered nuance, but this is really a ensemble piece. David's daughter, Rachel, played by the effervescent Genesis Perez, coping with the loss of her mother at the same time as her concern about the well being of her father. Perez, who is a relative newcomer to the Main Stage at the Elite, uses her expressive face and body language to effectively communicate subtext and emotions beyond her years. Rachel is teamed with the next door neighbor and best friend Cindy- played by Sophia Fox. Together the girls tackle a summer on the beach with the zeal of youth. Ms. Fox's character has hopes for a burgeoning relationship with her friend's father, which toes the line between awkward and innocent to improperly timed and inappropriate. Director Rolland Petrello has guided this potentially uncomfortable aspect of the story in a way that is sure not offend the audience.
David spends much of his time ruminating over and mourning the loss of his wife. He spends nights talking to her on his walks along the beach, I hesitate to mention that we actually get to see Gillian in this show. A dream version of his lost love comes to him onstage, played by Alyssa Carmen. I would love to keep that a secret for the audience but Ms. Carmen deserves praise for her contribution to the show. Her tête-à-têtes with Walthall and playful yet honest barbs evoke smiles in even the saddest moments.
The tension of show hinges on David's tenuous relationship with his button pressing sister in law Esther, played by the always amazing Jen Ridgway. Ridgway embraces the role of therapist (who does beach side yoga) in a way I did not expect, but brought great verisimilitude to the piece. It's easy to imagine Esther as a crystal carrying, bean bag bedecking, jeweled-string curtained free spirit, to match (and out-do) her sister, Gillian. But Ridgway's professional, clinical, level headed approach not only enriches what we imagine could have been a contentious relationship with her sister, but also adds some validity to her choices. One choice in particular, to bring David a new love interest, and get him back on the horse.
That love interest is a woman named "Kevin", there's a story to that name you'll have to see the show to find out. Kevin is played by Elisabeth Melcher who is enough like Carmen's Gillian that the audience can see why David could be intrigued by this woman, while still being very much her own person. Melcher brings a sense of fun to the stage, a willingness to look the other way to underage drinking (a fantastic scene by Fox) and yet a motherly ear when needed. Her tenderness and humor make her instantly likable to audience, and everyone really (except Cindy.)
I should stress this show is a comedy. I hope I've made that clear. There is much to be sad about, family fights, a deceased loved one, awkward meet-cutes, and disappointed puppy love, but in it there is so much talent and laughter. Which brings me to Michael Adams, who by far and away is the comedic relief of this show as Esther's husband Paul. Paul always has a wry comment (delivered perfectly) to throw at the precise moment. Granted, Paul tends to pick on poor Cindy a little too often but Esther is always around to put him back in his place.
Together this rag tag group of bruised, but not broken, survivors meet up to remember their lost family, rejoice in new love, and most importantly remember what keeps them together.
You will not want to miss To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, running at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard until September 15th.
Shows are Friday, Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.