Snakes, swamps, space aliens, spinster sisters and slapstick come together in the “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” opening at Grandstreet Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, just in time for the Halloween season.
It runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Nov. 4.
“It’s a very unusual play,” said guest director Pat Ponich, who taught for years at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and is the mother of popular local actress Pam Ponich-Hunthausen.
Set in the Florida swamps, the play “has a lot of spookiness to it, appropriate to the Halloween season,” said Ponich.
A Southern Gothic mystery, it’s a tale of romance, murder, alien abduction and comedy, featuring the spinster Nettle sisters, Faye Clementine (Dorothy Thiede), who awaits the return of space aliens so she can leave Sugar Bean, and her devout Mormon sister, Willie Mae (Mary Linn Crouse), who longs to escape to Salt Lake City to find a good Mormon husband.
Out of the swamp appears a birdlike woman, setting in motion a series of surprising events. Secrets are revealed, along with a diabolical plot to ensure the return of the space aliens.
The bizarre comedy earned playwright Nathan Sanders an Oppenheimer Award nomination when it debuted off-Broadway in 1995. Since then, it’s proven popular with regional theaters.
Reviewers embraced it. “A wildly funny script,” wrote L.A. Weekly.
While the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “Deliciously offbeat. ... Sisterhood as an extreme sport. ... It’s just plum impossible to resist the flights of whimsy!”
“It’s a very unusual play,” said Ponich.
“On first look,” she thought, “what is this crazy thing.”
But she’s been charmed by both the writing and the fascinating roles it offers for middle-aged actresses.
“The writer is so excellent,” Ponich said. “He has this wild imagination. It’s very quick dialog, but authentic. It’s just a blast. I think people will really, really enjoy it.”
And although bizarre, “it’s not just fluff,” Ponich added. “It has a wide range of emotion. There’s a lot of drama and tension. It’s also very poignant. There are some very sweet moments.”
“It’s a a great show for being funny, then tragic and then funny,” said Dennis Rau, who plays Bishop Crumley and doubles as an angel.
“It’s very comedic.” Rau said. “It’s a little supernatural. It’s got angels, devils, a reptile woman, murder, mayhem and deception — all rolled into one.”
Rau, whose most recent Grandstreet roles were Isidor Straus in “Titanic” and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” describes his current role as mostly “holding up the shopping bag” for the woman characters.
Rau’s wife, Lisa Shafer-Rau plays the Reptile Woman, a sharp contrast to her character, Ida Straus, in “Titanic.”
“Her father was the Reptile Man,” said Shafer-Rau. “They take care of reptile problems. Since it’s a swamp of Florida, she takes care of a lot of reptile problems. She comes to help them out with their snake problem. Mormon women are getting bitten by snakes and dying. She has some unusual powers — part snake charmer and voodoo. She’s a very interesting lady.
“The script has a lot of funny quips and sayings,” she added. “The script writer was very, very quick and really sharp.”
“It’s also kind of sad,” she said. “You feel kind of sad for them (the sisters).”
Actress Kat McKay appears as Videllia Sparks, “a wild and crazy woman from New Orleans who comes to Sugar Bean in the midst of a dark and stormy night. She’s an outsider. She’s in feathers. She works in an exotic club in the city.”
McKay is relishing her role.
“There are so few parts for us more mature women,” she said. “More parts are written for 20-year-old ingenues. That’s what’s great about this show. It’s getting older actresses on stage.”
McKay played the very mean Aunt Mattie Fae in Helena Theatre Company’s “August Osage County” at the Myrna Loy Center.
Like that play, this one looks at family relationships. In this case, sisters.
“Sisters can be mad as hell one moment,” said McKay, “and the next moment they just love you to death.
“It will appeal to all ages....there is a mystery that unfolds in the second act. It’s for anyone who likes slapstick and anyone who loves Halloween. It really plays up the ghost-and-goblin aspects of life.”
Not only will the audience be entertained, Ponich predicted. “I think they’ll be fascinated. I think it will give them a lot to think about, which should be what we go to the theater for.”