"Yes, we're cooking an apple pie right on stage," said Maria Gobetti, co-artistic director of the Victory Theatre Center. Make that two dozen apple pies — one pie will be baked from start to finish during each of the 24 performances of Lawrence Thelen's new comedy, "Pie in the Sky," premiering in the intimate Little Victory Theatre on Friday.
Thelen's two-character comedy takes place on an unexpected day in the lives of an elderly mother and her daughter, both widows, living together in an Abilene, Texas, mobile home.
As Mama and Dory (played by stage and screen veterans K Callan and Laurie O'Brien, respectively) work together to make an apple pie, their conversation shifts during all the peeling, measuring, crust-filling and baking between the task at hand and deeper issues, sparking certain revelations. When the pie (baked in a working oven on stage) is done, the play is over.
"I had this idea of two older women having a conversation, and over the course of this conversation, secrets would come out that would shake the perception of one of these women's lives," Thelen said. "We go through life and we think we know our history, then maybe somebody comes along, and all of a sudden those 'quote, unquote' facts aren't real any more. That intrigued me. What if what you thought was real and true all of a sudden didn't exist anymore? What happens if that is applied to a life?"
With that in mind, Thelen, a home cook and father of two, was baking an apple pie when it occurred to him that the process — assembling the ingredients, mixing them together, preparing the crust and baking the pie — could be an interesting structure for a play. And then he remembered an incident in the 1990s involving his mother and grandmother.
"Something happened, and my grandmother said [an expletive]," Thelen said.
It was so out of character, that his mother voiced shocked disapproval. "My grandmother looked at her, and, with all sincerity and seriousness, said, 'I am 80 years old. If I want to say [that expletive], I'll say it,'" he said. "We still laugh about that in the family. Here's this 80-year-old woman saying, 'who the hell am I trying to impress at this point in my life?' You had this moment of pure truth."
That family story inspired the first scene Thelen wrote as he began envisioning a conversation between an 85-year-old mother and her 65-year-old daughter.
"It all sort of clicked," he said. "Basically, I started writing two plays. How would they be putting the pie together, the process? What would come first, what would come second? I wrote several scenes dealing with that. Then I wrote the scenes dealing with these two women and their relationship and the secrets revealed."
The two plays became an hour and 20-minute conversation, done in real time, with no intermission. "It's fun to watch Mama and Dory make the pie," Thelen said, "but it's also fun, in a serious sort of way, to see how they deal with their world not being what they thought it would be when they woke up a couple hours ago."
"Mama is probably how I was raised to be," Callan said. "She's a very strong woman, and she's a woman who has lived her life kind of on her own terms. She's very forthright, and she is very maternal about her daughter, with a strong sense of family … a very strange family as it turns out."
For her part, O'Brien said she sees Dory as "sad and damaged, a bit confused. She's kind of gotten bashed about by life and lost track of herself. What she needs from her mother are answers and love. I think what Mama does give her, ultimately, are the tools to go out and find love [of her own]."
"It's such a sweet play, but it's got depth to it. It's got roots," O'Brien said. "And I'm having such a blast working with K."
Gobetti, who is directing the production, said that one thing that attracted her interest — having had a difficult relationship with her own mother — is the play's positive message about mothers and daughters.
"It was nice to read a play that is equally dramatic and comedic, where there was a mother figure who is tough but loving," she said.
Timing during the production is crucial, of course. There will be no back-up pies if the recipe goes wrong, so rehearsals were challenging, although "when you have to physically deal with stuff, it takes over," O'Brien said. "Making the pie, cleaning up after the pie or talking about the pie, I think it helps both us stay where we're supposed to be."
The finished pie (Thelen's recipe) will be served opening night, supplemented with purchased pastries; what to do with the pies after each performance during the play's run has yet to be decided, Gobetti said. Aware that the aroma of a fresh-baked pie will set some stomachs rumbling, "maybe we'll raffle them off."
Sadly, Callan said, neither she nor O'Brien can eat their culinary results. "Laurie is gluten intolerant, and I am currently off sugar," Callan said, "It's hard. It smells so good."
If You Go
What: "Pie in the Sky"
Where: Little Victory Theatre in the Victory Theatre Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.
When: Opens Friday, March 31 and runs through May 21. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 4 p.m. Sundays.
Price: Tickets cost $24 to $34.
More info: For more information, call (818) 841-5422 or visit thevictorytheatrecenter.org.