What do you do once you’ve very nearly cast a play but can’t produce it due to a lack of male talent in its key roles?
If you’re director Terri Miller Schmidt at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, you simply choose another, female-centric play and use the actresses you have.
Schmidt, facing such a predicament with the originally scheduled “Crown Matrimonial,” picked “Ladies in Retirement,” a murderous melodrama she’d staged quite successfully a decade ago at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, and the transition is a seamless one.
This vintage drama, a period piece when it first hit Broadway in 1940, is set in 1885 in the English marshes, Agatha Christie territory. This is not Christie, however, but a pair of male playwrights, Edward Percy and Reginald Denham, working through a predominantly female cast of characters.
“Ladies in Retirement” succeeds on the clarity of such characterizations, and NTAC has some impressive actresses aboard to recreate a Victorian period, where an elderly woman’s companion invites her two dotty sisters to move in with her, with disastrous results.
Andrea La Vela scores in the part of the indomitable older sister, the lone “straight” role in a collection of crazies. La Vela keeps her upper lip properly stiff as she negotiates between the sisters and her benefactor, a retired diva of the London stage and ruler of the manor.
Judy Jones excels in the latter role, striving to maintain order in an atmosphere of near-madness. Jones underscores her melodramatic character without veering over the edge of characterization in a commanding performance.
The sisters are a show-stealing lot.
The elder one (Cleta Cohen) is a quarrelsome old harridan, while the (much) younger sibling (Elizabeth Desloge) is a blonde, bubbly knockout. Their contrasting, and conflicting, appearances and personalities enrich the awkward situation, often at odds with La Vela’s calculated plans for a murderous takeover.
Into this already roiling sea of discomfort comes the sisters’ nephew, Albert (Stephen Saatjian), a felonious rake with one eye on the old lady’s fortune and the other on her nubile maid (Carrie Theodossin, who very nearly steals this show). This interesting subplot may strain believability, but it’s neatly accomplished.
Throw in a nun from the nearby parish (Kimberly Lewis), who’s always showing up at an uncomfortable point in the action, and you have the ingredients for an extended exercise in manipulation, rendered palatable by Schmidt’s crisp direction and her cast’s performing acumen.
Enriching the picture considerably are the gloomy old setting (by Andrew Otero) and the vintage costume designs of Joni Stockinger and Bettie Muellenberg. These aspects, along with Mitch Atkins’ lighting and Brian Page’s sound designs, combine to create a wonderfully creepy experience.
“Ladies in Retirement” may be an oldie, but it’s still a goodie with juicy roles abounding for a (mostly) all-female cast, even if the actresses in question originally had intended to enact another play. It’s a happy accident paying dividends at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.
TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You GoWhat: “Ladies in Retirement”
Where: Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays and April 28. Through April 29.
Call: (949) 631-0288 or go to https://www.ntaconline.com