The best aspect of great community theater is you never know where you’ll find it. It could be an elaborate setting in an old movie house. It could be in a modern black box in the local community center, or possibly a small stage in a church social hall.
Walking into the wood paneled and linoleum-tiled Thurmont American Legion hall in northern Frederick County, one probably wouldn’t expect first rate local theater. That is, unless the audience isn’t familiar with Beth Watson’s very talented little acting troupe.
An hour-plus north of DC, the Thurmont Thespians have been producing consistently high quality live theater for local and regional audiences. First under the watchful eye of Spence Watson, the group is now helmed by the aforementioned Beth Royer Watson.
The Thurmont Thespian’s latest triumph is a tough show for a small group in a nontraditional space, Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite, a modern day take on the biblical story of Job. Admittedly not his best work, Simon himself was known to describe the obstacles faced in staging his vision.
Director Matt Bannister, in his directorial debut, proves that this show CAN be done, and done damned well! Mr. Bannister took some liberties necessitated by the venue, yet squeezed every last laugh out of the willing audience.
Playing poor Joe Benjamin, the target of both temptation and wrath, Rob Hughes is funny, sad, but ultimately triumphant in his refusal to forsake God. The agonizing process he’s subjected to grabs the audience in the middle of Act 1 and doesn’t let up until the final bows propels God’s Favorite.
Mr. Hughes himself deserves credit for sharing Joe’s painful test of faith. The playbill describes that Mr. Hughes himself is a two-time transplant recipient, so he knows a thing or two about being tested. That aside, he’s funny, genuine and stalwart in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
Delivering those challenges falls to Rose Alexander, a gender switch as Sidney Lipton, God’s messenger. The casting choice yields director Bannister’s genius, because after watching Ms. Alexander, I simply couldn’t imagine any else as Sidney Lipton. I would dare anyone to take their eyes off of this actress when she’s onstage, she is simply amazing. Her native New Zealand accent adds to the fun of the character, and creates opportunities for word play made all that funnier thanks to the “down undah” repartee.
Sidney Lipton is the temptress, the promised relief from Joe’s endless stream of misery if only he’d forsake his faith. To make it work, it can’t come across as mean. We’re already inclined to root for poor Joe, so the Lipton character has to supplant mean with mischief, and Ms. Alexander surely brings the mischief.
A few other actors deserve a nod. Christine Miller Grable plays Joe’s wife Rose, and she bears the burdens of Joe’s tests in hilarious fashion. Her frantic paranoia in the first scene is laugh-out-loud funny. Erin Schwarz’s take on Joe’s daughter Sarah milks every laugh out of her character that Neil Simon intended, and maybe a few more.
One of the most consistently enjoyable roles is turned in by Ian Fowler as perpetually drunken son David. He might stumble through the Benjamin mansion under the influence, but his wry take on the surroundings cuts to the heart of the show.
Another joy to watch is Katie Rictor as Mary, the family maid. Ms. Rictor’s portrayal of Mary’s overly dramatic take on the most mundane events had the crowd laughing whenever she took the stage.
The set design by Michael Brown made the most of the spare American Legion hall space. God’s Favorite is often produced with a set that collapses around Joe Benjamin, eventually consumed by fire. Recognizing their limitations with on-stage effects, director Bannister opted to start de-constructing the set during the intermission, in the full view of the audience. Later, flashing red lights and sirens between the first and second scenes of Act 2 allowed a group of stagehands, clad in firefighter gear, to make the final set changes. It works very well, a really creative solution to a sticky problem.
A few lines glitches, some tech snafus and the odd but slight echoing whisper of country western music from the Legion’s bar aside, this production works very well, which is a testament to Matt Bannister’s creative vision and the hard work of a talented cast.
Thurmont is a lovely small town nestled in the Catoctin Mountain foothills. Best known for its proximity to the Camp David presidential retreat, you might think it too far a drive to see a show. You’d be wrong, and you’d miss a really fun show.
Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
God’s Favorite runs through November 15, 2015 at the Thurmont American Legion – 8 Park Lane, in Thurmont, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 271-7613, or purchase tickets at the venue.