Kimberly Demmary’s “Seatbelts Required” – A Different Kind of Haunted House

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

‘Tis the season for ghost tours, malevolent pumpkins, and trick-or-treaters, but at the Santa Paula Theater Center, there’s a different kind of horror story currently being staged: Kimberly Demmary’s “Seatbelts Required,” a cathartic confrontation between three half-sisters, who have just finished burying their mother and are trying to deal with their respective feelings for her and for one another. It’s really a ghost story because the sisters are gathered in the dimly lit house their late mother lived in until her death. Mom was an abusive, self-centered Midwestern Mommie Dearest who never took the time to properly raise her three daughters.  Demmary, who stars as Janet, the eldest of the three daughters, loosely based the story on her own memories of family road trips, but let her imagination run wild in concocting a story that is a roller coaster of emotions. Demmary’s costars are Andrea Robles as middle daughter Agnes, and Joanna Bert as the youngest, Maggie.

As the three tentatively catch up with their respective lives since leaving home, more and more details are revealed as to how they were mistreated by their mother, and in Act II, the hidden feelings come out with a vengeance, symbolized by Janet’s insisting that the lights in the house be turned up, representing the revealing of each of their raging resentments toward their mother and each other. Demmary was smart not to make the play entirely somber and angry. Many of the best moments involve pleasant memories of games the girls played with and on each other. But invariably, the talk turns to which daughter Mom favored, who did what to whom, and in the end, a terrifying one-downsmanship confessional of each daughter’s most frightening deeds. “We’re all messed up,” Maggie understates toward the end, and although anyone with siblings has memories of rivalries, resentments, and even abusive behavior, there is nothing like what these three wretched creatures have gone through because of their horrid mother. As Bette Davis’ Margo Channing says in “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

All three women are superlative in their parts, instantly painting their respective characters with distinctive personalities: Janet, the suburban housewife who escaped her mother’s torment only to marry too soon and drink too much; Agnes, the wallflower spinster who ends up caring for a mother who never wanted her, and Maggie, the free-spirited, preferred baby of the three…or was she? Demmary has created a riveting work that is a cleansing therapy session with no therapist. It’s a no-holds-barred exploding of the id, fraught with bare emotions, laughter, tears, and unspeakable anguish.

I talked with Kimberly about the play:

VCOS: So what percentage of this play is true to your own personal life?

Kimberly: Not as much as you would think. The emotional inter-sibling fighting was certainly pulled from our squabbles as sisters growing up, however, as adults, we are less vocal about our feelings and a bit more refined. But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting play, would it? And how our mother related to us children is definitely pulled from life experiences. But to be honest, the truly horrible situations discussed in the show are not true, or maybe very slightly. I enjoy taking a very small moment in time and expanding it into something much, much larger. Anything can happen, there are no boundaries. And it gives me great pleasure to put my characters and my actors through hell and back. That’s the thrill of writing.

VCOS: Is there enough fictional creativity to keep you from going mad reliving your family’s troubles? In other words – to what extent are you playing yourself as opposed to a character you’ve created?

Kimberly: Oh yes! Thank goodness.  Also, I have mixed up the situations within each sister’s story as well.  Not everything the character called Agnes experiences is my story as a middle sister.  It’s a bit of everyone; a little mix-and-match. But little pieces of the show do rehash, night after night, show after show, conversations we’ve had or times growing up that I remember very clearly.  But I am okay with reliving it again. It’s been sort of therapeutic.  But as I stated earlier, the most horrific findings in this play are from my own crazy imagination so those moments on stage are nothing but pure acting pleasure. I can actually sleep at night knowing those moments on stage were never true.
VCOS: Did Andrea and Joanna have their own personal stories that might have helped you fine tune the characters?
Kimberly: I am not sure what their family lives are really like, but I do know, based on the feedback from many of the folks who have seen the play, that there is a little something, a little family secret or turmoil in just about everyone’s family. Last night we had sisters watching the show who were very emotional throughout the play. They told how it was sort of on track with their own lives. And we, the actors, are constantly being hugged by theatergoers, both men and women, after every show, many with tears in their eyes, thanking us for the therapy session. Some say they NEEDED therapy after seeing this show, and I am thrilled to evoke so much emotion out of an audience. I will say that my favorite parts of the play are not the funny bits, when you get mounds and mounds of laughter (I had to put some comedy in the play or people would never make it home after seeing the show), but it’s the quiet moments, when it’s just one actor alone on stage, reliving a moment, and the audience is silently sharing every single feeling along with the poor tormented character.
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We’ll conclude my interview with playwright Kimberly Demmary tomorrow. “Seatbelts Required” plays at the Santa Paula Theater Center through November 2. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.
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