Oh what tangled webs we weave when we practice to deceive. Is it truth or is it illusion and can you really tell the difference when it comes to your closest friends? As Olney Theatre Center continues its 75th Anniversary season with the rolling world premiere of Rancho Mirage, a new play by Steven Dietz, that is the question that begs to be answered. In this enlightening comic gem with raw realistic undertones, six very best friends are faced with the harsh realities that their friendships are based on little more than pleasant lies and conveniently spun charades. Directed by Olney’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith, this rapid-fire comedy is a roller coaster of witty banter that unravels the best of relationships all in one evening as the secrets shoot to the surface and the truths break through the light of carefully constructed facades.
Scenic Designer Russell Parkman creates the aesthetically pleasing household where the comedy unfolds; a gorgeous interior that opens up to a seemingly unending lake of paradise; a true luxurious home in which all the comforts money can provide can be found while still maintaining a posh minimalist appearance. Parkman’s exterior design with the reflective lake and dreamlike landscaping are a symbolic representation of the mirage that those in the play are attempting to uphold; a brilliant page to stage translation of scenic descriptiveness. Parkman keeps the furnishings sparse; a two-fold approach in his design work allowing the actors to more thoroughly exist within the space while subtly hinting at the Dahner’s financial plight.
Playwright Steven Dietz crafts brilliance into his script; the characters each being dynamic and yet simplistic in their own right. Encompassing the modern dilemma of financial destruction and how it infiltrates the average American’s personal life in a fashion that is both relatable yet humorous; a device that serves the overall message of his work well. Dietz is a master when it comes to building tension into a scene and molds stunning twists and shocking curveballs into the plot as it races toward its really intriguing and mostly pleasing conclusion.
Director Jason Loewith has a keen understanding of how to coax emotion from his cast and shows a deeply articulated bench of directorial skill when it comes to the script as a whole. His ability to make those moments of sharp tension slice like a knife juxtaposed against the uproarious moments of comedy – are a mark of his vast working knowledge of how to present a rich and well-rounded production. There are moments in the production that really pop; exploding away from the already teaming pace of the show, and Loewith ensures that they sparkle with a bright flare. His approach to this particularly moving and yet extremely humorous show maintains the playwright’s overall message of financial struggle and deteriorating friendships while still finding the moments of “silver lining” in each micro-disaster.
The cast as a whole have a brilliant working relationship; seemingly six old friends who tolerate one another because of the relationships they’ve established, be it that they’ve simply known each other for ages or are married to one another. These six talented actors toe the fine line of socially acceptable throughout the performance and as the tension mounts and the stakes escalate so do their performances until there are half a dozen personalities vying for the audience’s attention in the most amusing and wildly thrilling ways possible. The level at which they understand their relationships to one another is astounding; their ability to keep pace with the zippy dialogue and overall natural flow of their conversations is impressive.
Starting off in the Dahner household at the show’s namesake, the audience is introduced to Diane (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and Nick (James Konicek). Immediately the pair have an unadulterated simplicity to their marital bliss; simplistic and honest, gently sweeping their existence along the surface. But it is quickly evident that there is a tension that burbles deeply below as well. Olivera maintains a more calm approach to the production and has the biggest overall growth and change as a character, saving her real emotional outbursts for the end of the show. She swaps polished insults with the other ladies in due course and really barbs at Konicek toward the end, but all in all maintains a modicum of composure when everyone else seems to be breaking apart. Konicek is heavy handed with deadpan and hints of sarcasm in his humor. Succeeding the most in diverting the conversation away from his character’s personal turmoil, Konicek is often the driving catalyst for other moments of uproarious laughter, his character’s slightly bristly nature acting as the starting point for others’ banter.
Enter Pam (Susan Lynskey) and Charlie (Michael Russotto). With seemingly simplistic problems in their marriage their underlying issues are just as deep as everyone else’s. Lynskey and Russotto have the perfect imbalance of dysfunction in their stage marriage, both having incredibly raw emotional outbursts that surpass everyone in the cast. While Russotto tends to be the lighter side of the coin in this case, he has his heavier moments of weighty emotions that tug at your heartstrings. Lynskey balances her character, who is often a bit on the melodramatic side, with a stunning confession toward the end of the production that moves you to tears; a harrowing emotional monologue that grounds the show in its present reality.
Topping the bill of dinner guests are Trevor (Paul Morella) and Louise (Tonya Beckman). Playing the most peculiar couple their biting barbs at one another carry well into everyone else’s affair. Morella is a quirky character with humorous affectations that really make his existence pop to life in the midst of everyone else’s hilarity. But Morella is not without his serious side, laying it harsh and heavy into Beckman when it comes to the subject of custody; revealing a darker more passionately vehement side of his character for all to see. Beckman at first appears to be little more than the flighty obnoxious ‘friend’ that no one quite knows how to discard, but the longer she exists in the mix the deeper her character grows. Her sudden and almost apoplectic emotional outbursts are a scream; she really carries a great deal of the verbal comedy in this show. As the show builds exponentially in dramatic, albeit hysterical, action thundering toward a conclusion, it is Beckman that really brings new meaning to the old phrase ‘when the shit hits the fan.’
Relatable for everyone who has ever had friends or ever found themselves putting on an act for their friends Olney Theatre Center’s Rancho Mirage is a ‘must see’ comedy with a fabulous cast and delicious dramatic undertones.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
Rancho Mirage plays through October 20, 2013 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.