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San Francisco by Richard Connema

American Premiere of Frank McGuinness’ Dolly West’s Kitchen

Also see Richard's reviews of Othello, What’s Wrong with Angry? and The Thousandth Night

Dolly West's Kitchen
Simon Vance, Mark Phillips, Christian Conn, Charlotte Cornwell
TheatreWorks opens its 36th season with the American premiere of Frank McGuinness’ Irish comic-drama, Dolly West’s Kitchen, at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center through July 10th. The Chekhovian drama was part of an all Irish play program at the Old Vic Theatre during the summer of 2000 as presented by the famous Abby Theatre Players. The late great Irish actress Pauline Flanagan was honored with the 2001 Olivier Award for best supporting actress for her role as Rima West.

There is a lot going on in Dolly’s kitchen. The two-hour, fifteen-minute play utilizes many sub plots concerning nine characters involved in jealousy, adultery, homosexuality and divided loyalties that were prevalent in neutral Ireland during World War II. The playwright seems to dispense with a central plot but has given us many short sub plots involving all of these characters over a short span of time. He lets the comic drama be casual, as in real life. The playwright’s view of what’s funny and poignant is exceptional. All of his characters are shown responding and reacting to one another on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. The main theme certainly is the Irish way of thinking of love, in that the obvious feature of the feeling is that it almost never works out to the satisfaction of either party.

Dolly West’s Kitchen takes place in the kitchen of the widow Rima West where Irish, English and American characters meet. The lovely little house and gardens are in Donegal in neutral Ireland just over the border from British-held Northern Ireland. American soldiers are being trained for the upcoming invasion of the European continent. They often slip over the border to Ireland to enjoy the friendliness of the Irish citizens, especially the women.

All of the characters show complicated human impulses and responses, mostly on an emotional level. Rima West (Charlotte Cornwell) is the widow of the late Dr. West, who left her and the children well off. Rima is a feisty and fun-loving woman with a satirical wit. Her daughter Dolly (Stacy Ross) has recently returned from Mussolini’s Italy to take over the family kitchen. Dolly's longtime lover, British officer Alec (Mark Phillips), is stationed across the border. He has come for a visit, much to the chagrin of sharp-tongued Irish son Justin (Jeremy Bobb), an officer in the Irish Republican army. Daughter Esther (Lanie MacEwan) is married to a weak-willed husband (Simon Vance) who is also a soldier in the Irish Republic. Added to this mix of character is the maid Anna (Desiree Matthews) who likes to sleep around, especially with American soldiers.

Rima West invites two American G.I.’s, Jamie O’Brien (Craig W. Marker) and his cousin Marco Delavicario (Christian Conn), the campiest soldier I have ever seen, to her kitchen and they become the catalyst of the drama. Eire might not be at war but these characters sure are. The last scene gets to be a little too melodramatic but it still offers a fascinating view of Ireland and its citizens during and after the war.

Robert Kelley’s marvelously acted production does full justice to the play’s potent mixture of laughter and pain. The performers give good presentations on the whole; however, I do think that Christian Conn (New York actor The Idiot) goes over the top in the first scene, playing it more like a modern day San Francisco flaming queen as he enters the house for the first time. (When I was in the air force we followed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy all the time, even out of uniform, during the war.) In later scenes, he drops the campy style to show a much more serious character. His romantic interludes with the Irish officer are very well done, with Jeremy Bobb (New York actor Murder in the First) giving a good performance as well.

Stacy Ross (Hanna and Martin, Major Barbara) as Dolly West once again turns in a great performance. She gives a confident portrayal of the daughter who is on and off with her British lover portrayed by Mark Philips (Proof, Grapes of Wrath). Both of these characters are not fleshed out and one wonders why Stacy is in a sudden rage as she lashes out at her sister in one scene. Also, there is little background on Mark Philips' character but he plays the official “stiff upper lip” British officer gentlemen straight out of those J. Arthur Rank’s films of the war. Mark opens up a bit with an effective solo performance in the last scene as he describes the horrors he has seen during the war.

Lanie MacEwan (New York Actress, Counsellor-at-Law) gives a true portrait of a woman disappointed in the marriage to her weak husband. Simon Vance (The Real Thing at Marin Theatre) is effective as the spineless individual. He tries to please everyone but is incapable of doing anything right. Craig W. Marker (Bus Stop at Marin and Shakespeare in Hollywood at TheatreWorks), sporting a somewhat New Yorker accent that you would hear in a 1940s film, is very good as a naïve soldier who speaks very little. Desiree Matthews (Blue Window at the Exit) plays the maid Anne as a go-getting man hunter.

English stage veteran Charlotte Cornwell (Master Class and voted best actress by the SFBATCC for A Little Night Music plus leading actress at the Royal Shakespeare Company) as the elderly mother of the clan portrays the role with racy incorrigibility and humorous wisdom. What a shame she has to “die” in the first act since she livens up the play with her sardonic remarks and great little zingers.

Andrea Bechert’s set design is almost overwhelming; the whole stage is filled with not only the kitchen but the garden and walkways on both sides of the stage. There are rounded stone walls and fertile earth about the outside of the cutaway kitchen which is a masterpiece of detail. Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes are authentic ‘40s era. Pamila Gray’s soft lighting is perfect for the seacoast of the Emerald Isle.

Dolly West’s Kitchen plays through July 10 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Their next production with be the West Coast premiere of Tom Jones and Joseph Thalken’s musical Harold and Maude, opening at the Lucie Stern in Palo Alto on July 20th. Crowns plays at the Marines Memorial Theatre from July 12 through August 21. For tickets call 415-771-6900 or Ticketmaster.com.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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