The director hopes audiences will come see the show "not only because it's very funny, but also because it is an accurate look at the internal struggles of the American housewife directly after World War II. "
It's probably a too-easy target to hit today. The times have certainly changed since Doris Baisley's play "Mrs. California" first opened in the mid-1980s and the ironies it approaches with surprise and knowing nods are but echoes amid the #MeToo phenomena and the effects of risen consciousness dominating headlines every day. But, that doesn't mean it isn't funny.
Directed by Sherri Perry, the play opens today, Valentine's Day (Feb. 14), 7:30 p.m., at Taos Onstage Theatre, 101-A Camino de la Placita at the corner of Paseo del Pueblo Sur in Cantu Plaza. Additional performances continue through Feb. 24.
The play stars Karen Paull as Dot (Mrs. Los Angeles), Linda Stokas as Babs, Will McGuire as Dudley, Anushri as Mrs. Modesto, Donna McKusick as Mrs. San Francisco, Mary Walker as Mrs. San Bernardino, Helen Rynaski as the Stage Manager, Blair Jackson as the Judge and Mark Perry providing a Recorded Voice.
The play takes place in "pre-women's lib 1955," according to a synopsis. "The play centers on Dot (Paull), a Los Angeles housewife, who spent World War II directing Navy convoys by radio. Now she finds herself competing to become the winner of a homemaking contest. Poking wicked good fun at the pretentious hokum of a hotly contested pageant where things go comically wrong, 'Mrs. California' gives us glimpses of the complex personalities that lie beneath the judge-charming caricatures the contestants have created for themselves. A commentary on the way advertising and media made women question their intelligence and worth, 'Mrs. California' explores the consequences of striving to be the ideal woman."
Director Perry said in a statement that she first fell in love with the theater when she got a small part in a local production of "Little Orphan Annie" at the age of 8. She says she's been performing ever since. At last count, she says she's been in 38 plays and 22 musicals. She is also a musician and a singer. "Mrs. California" represents her fourth time as a director.
"I became involved with 'Mrs. California' because I grew up in California and because of how much the play reminded me of my mother," Perry said. "My mother was born in 1940 and was a Mrs. California. She was right there at the beginning of the feminist movement. I have a deep connection to the characters in the play, and I felt that it would bring me closer to my mother's era. The script was reflective of my mother's life. I'm very interested in anything that has to do with the beginning of the feminist movement.
"I believe that community theater is supposed to bring in members of the community. Community theater is for the whole community. I think it's important to include more members of the community in the production rather than casting the same people over and over again. When I cast a play, I look for people who I think can grow within the character -- I don't look for the most experienced actor. Potential, drive and desire are the most important factors, and our actors have these characteristics."
Perry said producing the play on Taos Onstage's compact space has been a challenge, but they've done it, and "I think the audience will enjoy how faithfully we have recreated the '50s era."
She adds that she hopes audiences will come see the show "not only because it's very funny, but also because it is an accurate look at the internal struggles of the American housewife directly after World War II. Women played very important roles during the war but then were expected to return to their housewife roles afterward. Women found out during the war that they could become more. The play gives us a glimpse of the level of frustration this postwar transition caused."
Karen Paull says she is excited to be back on the Taos stage. She and her wife, Wendy Robbins, created and produced "The Marijuana Show," a counter culture reality TV show now streaming on Amazon Prime. She thanks Wendy for running lines over the weekends.
"I auditioned for 'Mrs. California' because I was hungry to get back into the theater after a four-year absence," Paull said. "Theater is my first love. What appealed to me about the part is while women have come a long way since the oppression of the '50s, the #MeToo movement of today proves we have a long road ahead, and this play helps drive that message home."
The character she plays, Dot, is conflicted, she said. Dot is a perfect and happy homemaker and loving wife of the '50s on the outside, "while emotionally she is struggling to find her own sense of power, a sense of pride and independence she once felt as part of the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] in the Navy. I plan to master the duality of Dot and showcase a deeper and more complex character than the typical woman you meet at the Mrs. California contest."
While some may assume the play is rooted in an unreachable nostalgia for today, "the end," she said, "will remind you of Millicent Rogers, Georgia O'Keeffe and all the other artistic and strong women who broke out of their molds, went against society's 'standards' and made history."
Helen Rynaski, who plays the Stage Manager, has acted in and written for community theater for the past seven years. "I relate strongly to this production because I was a child in a 1950s' Los Angeles suburban household where my tony-on-a-tight-budget mother, who worked full-time outside the home while raising five kids, managed to put a nourishing, balanced meal on a beautifully set table every night, and sewed her own maternity clothes and her daughters' First Communion dresses on an old Singer. My mother should have been crowned Mrs. California."
She said she relishes her role in part because the character likes to bark orders at people. "She puts on her game face for the various events, but really thinks the whole homemaker competition is nonsense. She makes an interesting counterpoint to the contestants," Rynaski said.
In addition to the actors, the production crew includes Assistant Director Judy Kasper, Set Design and Production Head Dianne Davis, Costumer Mikala Martínez and Lighting and Sound Tech Hannah May Tyree.
Tickets are $15. They may be purchased online at taosonstage.com or by calling (575) 224-4587.
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