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Orlando playwright Michael Wanzie reunites his popular 'Ladies of Eola Heights' for pay-per-view production

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As a travel writer who hasn't left the state of Florida in over six months, I'd probably accept an all-expenses-paid trip to the seventh circle of Hell right about now, if only to get out of the house. So I was feeling just a bit jealous last week when I spoke to prolific performer-playwright Michael Wanzie as he was driving home with producer-director Kenny Howard along a two-lane highway through the middle of Kentucky. Backwoods bluegrass country might not be the first place you'd picture two of Orlando theater's top talents taking a road trip (in my head, it resembles the The Muppet Movie's "Movin' Right Along" sequence with Kermit and Fozzie in the Studebaker), but I fully understood when Wanzie said their visit to see Howard's family "felt like I'd gotten out of prison."

Wanzie may have been staying inside, but he hasn't been sitting still. The weekly "Social Distance" fundraising showcase he and Howard ran with Rich Charron raised enough to give $100 gifts to 187 local performing artists affected by the pandemic. That program, which is currently paused, led directly to the formation of Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief (GOPAR), a partnership between local theaters and St. Luke's Methodist Church. Wanzie calls GOPAR "a permanent charitable organization for actors and people who work in the arts, who fall in distress on a year-round basis, and not just because there's a national crisis going on."

GOPAR (goparelief.wixsite.com) will launch its efforts with an online Labor Day telethon, but after many months of quarantine-caused unemployment, Wanzie himself is among those who could use some relief. That's a major reason why his Ladies of Eola Heights series is returning this weekend in an all-new Zoom-based pay-per-view production.

"Kenny and Rich encouraged me to write something for my own sake, because I've blown through my savings," Wanzie says. "We wanted to create something new that all three of us could be involved with creatively, so it seemed like the logical thing was to do the next episode" of Ladies, the popular series that's seen four sequels and two casts – both male and female – since its 2005 debut at Parliament House's Footlight Theatre.

When we last saw them in High Seas, the squabbling Locksdale sisters had gone their separate ways; this sixth installment picks up a decade later, when Pearl (Beth Marshall) brings the scattered siblings back together for a Zoom reunion, where she makes a momentous announcement.

The plot's details – including the identity of a surprise guest star – remain under wraps, but Wanzie did share a hint of what the ladies have been up to in the interim: "Pearl is exercising her activist nature, and she has developed a new relationship that we find out about. Opal (Peg O'Keef) went to Atlanta to spend time with her grandchildren [and] now she's all alone in a big house. Ruby (Blue Star) went to New York to pursue acting and had some success, but she left because of an unexpected turn of events."

Although this is the first work Wanzie has written specifically for Zoom, he says the format "really lent itself to the final product being incredibly conversational, because I bore in mind the whole time I was writing that you can't rely on action ... [I] tried to write it with a mindset of a television sitcom more than a play."

Many of us are feeling burnt out on online arts, a sentiment Wanzie understands, since he's watched several of them with Broadway performers, and was "struck by the bad timing." But in contrast with streamed readings of scripts that are intended for the stage, Wanzie thinks Ladies will "fare very well by comparison, because this was written as taking place specifically in a Zoom environment, so you don't feel like you're missing anything."

As director, Howard is using Zoom's "gallery view" to keep the entire cast visible, and recording each of the show's three scenes (which are separated by musical segments from Miss Sammy) in a single take. "It is so conversational, and everyone is doing such an amazing job with their facial expressions," he says. "I told them that if there are little glitches, they're just going to have to cover their asses." Although he called conducting virtual rehearsals using Kentucky WiFi "challenging," Howard adapted to the digital transition thanks to his seasoned cast.

"As long as the quality of everyone's internet was solid, they just stepped into these characters like putting on their favorite pair of shoes," says Howard. "It was like a little family reunion in the middle of a quarantine."

The one missing member of that family is designer Marcy Singhaus, who passed away last month. Singhaus costumed the Ladies "from their inception," says Wanzie, "both male and female" casts. The show will be dedicated to her with a preshow tribute montage, and each performer will wear an article she created as a "touchstone."

The YouTube stream of Ladies of Eola Heights Zoom Reunion debuts Saturday, Aug. 15, at 9 p.m. and will be available through Aug. 29. Tickets are $15, or $25 with VIP access to the pre- and post-show cast parties; visit wanzie.eventbrite.com to purchase.

This story appears in the Aug. 12, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters.

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