Theater review: Lunch at the Piccadilly

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A Wednesday matinee in the Carolinas – whose harebrained idea was that? Apparently, there are some people at the new Festival Stage in Winston-Salem who believe there’s an elderly audience for midday midweek theater. So they’ve hatched this scheme during the final week of Lunch at the Piccadilly, calling it their “Blue-Hair Special,” pricing tickets at $6.50 apiece, and seeing if it will fly.

The rocking chair in my photo hints at something Clyde Edgerton fans already know: Lunch at the Piccadilly mostly takes place at an old-age home, where newcomer Lil Olive sparks a benign revolt against quietude, conformity, resignation, and the powers that be. You’ll also notice the familiar face of the resident director at Winston-Salem’s new professional theater company, Steve Umberger. His idea of professional theater in the QC flew quite well for nearly 30 years until Charlotte Repertory Theatre famously flamed out in 2005.

Other Rep refugees are involved in the stage adaptation of Edgerton’s novel, developed by Umberger in three separate productions over the past five years with music and lyrics by Mike Craver. Bob Croghan presides with his usual panache over set and costumes, Audrey Brown reigns backstage as production stage manager, and Charlotte’s prince of gels, Eric Winkenwerder, tweaks the lights.

The lone Rep favorite onstage is Duke Ernsberger, vaguely menacing the residents of The Rosehaven Convalescence Center as Dr. Ted Sears, chancellor of the Christian college bidding to take over Rosehaven with a none-too-beneficent offer. Generosity, empathy, and religion do not seem to be prominently featured in Dr. Ted’s personal curriculum.

Clocking in at just over two hours – plus a 15-minute intermission – Piccadilly isn’t intent on taking us far and is in no particular hurry to get there. These old folk had better be charming, or there is trouble in Hansen County, North Carolina, where Rosehaven sits so picturesquely. Fortunately, Bo Thorp turns Lil into a personal showcase for her own scrappy sass. Lil’s devoted nephew, Carl Turnage, develops a romantic appetite for Anna Guthrie, Rosehaven’s beleaguered manager, but he’s conveniently shy, so this will take a while. Greg King and Fleur Phillips are nicely paired in these boy- and girl-next-door roles, romantic sparks fluttering like skittish butterflies.

Just as important as the lovebirds’ fumblings toward romance is the iPod that Anna leaves near a flowerbed. This leads to an eruption of elderly hip-hop and boogying that is the undeniable sweet spot of the show. Joining in the revelry is Craver, who predictably portrays Rosehaven’s guitar-toting resident, Eli Greyson. Wheelchair-bound L. Ray Flowers, played by Trip Plymale, manages to stand up when preaching a sermon or busting a move – slipping a mouth harp out of his pocket once or twice to pitch in on accompaniments. Patricia L. Cucco rounds out the cast as Clara Cochran, a retired librarian given way too much encouragement to write poetry.

While I did sit on the news of the “Blue-Hair Special” for nearly two days, there’s no need for me to apologize. The email bringing me the news also indicated that the Wednesday matinee was already sold out. Additional evening performances are scheduled through this Saturday, with two more matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

Tossing the sell-out crowd that joined me last Thursday night into the equation, there’s no denying that weekday matinees and fully professional homegrown theater companies are ideas that can fly in the Carolinas. Just not here in 2011. In 2012, perhaps? Stay tuned.

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