Ed Simpson's plays are so unassuming and so old-fashioned in their realistic structure that it would be easy for them to get lost. But they're very satisfying, in their own modest way, and "The Battle of Shallowford" at Theatre 40 is no exception.
At first it looks like a cousin of "The Andy Griffith Show." A group of regulars gathers for Sunday evening chitchat in the general store-post office of a small town in North Carolina, on Oct. 30, 1938. In truth, some of these characters never rise above sitcom stereotypes. But the play itself does.
Simpson gradually homes in on his only female character, the 17-year-old daughter of the store's proprietor. Ruthie (Allison Braitkrus) is itchin' to get out of her boring small town. But she hesitates to leave her father (David Hunt Stafford) alone, for her mother ran out on the household when Ruthie was just a toddler.
She discovers a couple of kindred souls--the church choir director (Dean Wood) and, more important, the pudgy Lonny (Eddie McClure), whose avid reading of science-fiction magazines has convinced him that an adventurous future awaits humanity.
Suddenly that future seems all too true--the radio is reporting that Martians have landed in New Jersey. It's actually the Mercury Theatre adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," but no one heard the beginning of the show, and almost everyone believes that a real emergency is at hand. Pass the ammunition, boys.
Convinced that life as she knows is about to end, Ruthie takes a decisive step. The sad truth underlying the play is that these people's lives will indeed change soon enough, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Mars--World War II is just around the corner.
Michael Lilly, who staged Simpson's "Elephant Sighs" and "Additional Particulars" in the L.A. area, is again at the helm. Although not all of the nine characters are fleshed out, the play's central themes and its bittersweet comedy come alive.
* "The Battle of Shallowford," Theatre 40, Beverly Hills High School campus, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Mondays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $12. (323) 936-5842. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.