The last time we saw the squabbling Locksdale sisters of Michael Wanzie's Ladies of Eola Heights, they seemed to have settled their differences in the wake of their abusive dad's death. But it looks like Pearl (Beth Marshall), Opal (Peg O'Keef) and Ruby (Blue Star) couldn't stay civil for long, as a public punch-up has led the trio to be sentenced to a dozen hilarious sessions of Court Ordered Therapy under neurotic psychiatrist Dr. Burroughs (Kevin Kelly).
Wanzie's characters were originally designed as drag caricatures, but these actresses – three of the brightest gems in Orlando theater – once again mine unexpected emotional depth from their roles between the broad laughs. The plot leans less toward propulsive action than past revelations; happily, Sam Singhaus (the only returning cast member from the original production) is on hand to lip-sync Drowsy Chaperone ditties as a one-person Greek chorus, clinching the play's climactic discovery. If you enjoyed the prequel, you won't want to miss this very funny follow-up; and if you missed the first episode at the Abbey last summer, highlights are screened pre-show (and are viewable online) to help catch up.
Wanzie's Court-Ordered Therapy: Ladies of Eola Heights Continued is directed by Kenny Howard, who helmed the original productions of all four installments starting more than a decade ago. He comes back to the Locksdales straight from staging The Flick, a pensive Pulitzer Prize-winner that's as different from Eola in pacing and tone as possible, and heads next into Heathers: The Musical, which follows The Flick as only the second major local production to be mounted at the new Dr. Phillips Center's Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater. That may make Howard the hardest-working director in Orlando at the moment, so I'm lucky he found 15 minutes after the opening night of Court Ordered Therapy to catch me up on his recent projects.
Howard began by praising his cast. "It's like a family reunion meets an SNL skit meets a Lifetime Television movie," he says, crediting Florida Theatrical Association, Gen Y producer Aaron Safer and assistant director Chris Yakubchik for supporting his strenuous schedule. When I commented on Therapy's in-the-round presentation, which places the actors in the middle of the audience instead of on the stage (an unusual and unnervingly intimate choice for the Abbey), Howard confessed, "To be honest, the initial choice was selfish on my part. I had just seen Fun Home [a Broadway show staged in the round] and I wanted to play in it. ... It just got inside my head. Michael was at first not keen on the idea [but] I couldn't let it go," he admits. "I said, 'Just give me two days and come and see, and if you don't like it, I'll reblock it.' He sat down, we started the run, we were 10 minutes in and he's like, 'I love it!'"
Though Eola and The Flick exist in opposite universes, they share Howard's directorial signature: an appreciation for pauses and a willingness (sometimes frustrating, but often fascinating) to dwell in the transitions between scenes. Silence "is something I've always been interested in," Howard acknowledges. "Even Michael after seeing the first run [of Eola] was like, 'I can see The Flick all over this.'
"I always tell actors I'm so interested in the action between the lines. If there's a moment that I feel that warrants that, I'm all about exploring those silences. ... I've always thought that silence is one of the most powerful tools for the stage."
One thing Howard isn't silent about is his love of working in local theater. "I came back to Orlando to direct. ... I went to New York to hone my directing skills and got an opportunity to do that, but then fell into a very different line of work producing [Broadway shows], and I came back just wanting to have the opportunity to make art." And though he's a big booster of the Abbey as a theater space, he also isn't quiet about his excitement to return to the Pugh at Dr. Phillips. "The space is fantastic. ... They treat you very, very well there, and they have so many bells and whistles it's incredible." He also expresses pride in tweaking the Center's pristine image with the aid of designer Bonnie Sprung, whose Flick set had patrons "walk into this brand-spanking-new theater, having this dirty, litter-filled theater looking back at you."
However, as the first local director of a multi-week run in the space, Howard experienced some bumps, hopefully for the benefit of future artists: "Although it became extremely efficient, because we were the first one that wasn't just coming in for an overnight, it was a little bit of a learning curve as to what a sit-down production does." Howard's parting advice to other producers eyeing the Pugh? "Two words come to mind: commercial viability."