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Theater Review: Depression-Era Drama Spotlights Survival of The Human Spirit

The story of a little play Adeline with a lot of heart is filling up the deftly designed, Depression Era-invoking space at the Powerhouse Theatre, where the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble has put together a production for the masses. Penned by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble perennial, Kit Steinkellner, who wrote last season’s hit, Quixotic, the new play is about ordinary folks mustering up courage in the face of financial calamities and in spite of soul-crushing life experiences.

At the center of the show is the titular Adeline Danner (Coco Kleppinger) a cheery, would-be starlet freshly returned to her tiny hometown of Flanagan, Illinois, after supposedly wowing Hollywood types during a short stint in Los Angeles. Adeline’s fellow townsfolk suppose she’s become a bona fide star, but secrets about her movie career loom beneath her sunny surface. Before said secrets are spilled,  a small handful of Adeline’s admirers audition for a play she’s directing in town, a romantic bit written by local newspaperman Buddy Walters (Isaac Wade). As rehearsals get underway, the unskilled thespians run into all kinds of petty problems, including scheduling conflicts and personality clashes, while also suddenly steamrolling into more serious matters of the heart.

The beauty of the play is in Steinkellner’s “gee-whiz” language, which creates a wistfulness we can’t help but love. The dingy multipurpose room at the local city hall houses rehearsals, and lots of the cast members show up in well-worn duds that signal the state of the economy in 1934. Steinkellner imbues Adeline with a surplus of optimism, steering her through this seemingly impossible stab at local stardom with a sense of total commitment. Adeline’s rosy outlook serves as an elixir for the downtrodden locals, and for those of us in the audience who might be feeling shaken by the current state of the economy.

But if the script is the solid foundation here, the actors build an entirely sturdy structure with stellar performances all around. Particularly outstanding is Sarah Watson in the role of Adeline’s pessimistic sister, Elna, whose perpetual scowl belies her fragility in matters of intimacy. Watson plays fiery anger as profoundly as she does searing vulnerability.

Amanda Glaze directs with extreme care and a grasp of the script that shows true compassion for the mishmash of characters, some of whom aren’t always that easy to love. Nick Santiago’s set and Michelle Nuemann’s costumes recall a time and place in which people are barely getting by. Oh, and singing ushers will see you to your seat.

Through September 5 at The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. For tickets, visit www.latensemble.com. Tickets are $15 at the door, $20 on line. 

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