REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The proverb “it takes a village” is the theme for Michael Perlmutter’s Open Meeting Closed, a tense and often funny play that is being staged at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. The show, which plays through July 16, deals with sobriety, choices, and self-examination, as five women from Alcoholics Anonymous, plus a young newcomer, battle one another as they talk about their lives and their addiction.
As we join the story, which takes place in a non-descript meeting room, one of the women, Helen, is zip-tied to a podium as the others confront her for having affairs with each of their husbands. Perlmutter, who has been writing plays since the 1980s, when he mentored with the late, Oscar-nominated writer Gill Dennis (I Walk the Line), says that writing for women has always been a favored mode for him:
I have often written for women—as women are generally more talkative than men and thereby make better subjects for theatre. Men tend to process their thoughts silently and then announce the results (as needed). Women tend to process their thoughts out loud (communally if they can) and work out the results. These are of course wide generalizations but at the core of why it’s fun to write for women.
As Marion (Nancy Solomons) says during the meeting, “this is not a drinking problem – it’s a stopping problem.” All of the women are currently sober, but the play exhibits the damage caused by their drinking: broken marriages, lost jobs, and shattered lives. Although grateful to be on the road to recovery, Lettie (played by Angela DeCico) says she feels “like a doused cigarette in a cup of coffee,” a metaphor that becomes a running gag throughout the play, as she tells about losing her husband, her children, and her friends in the process. All the women appear to be escaping from their problems by running. Rebecca (Sindy McKay), who, despite being sober for twelve years says she still can’t trust herself, has resorted to a heightened dependence on religion to get her through the unending struggle. Suzanne (Kelley Rohrborn) is a mother of two teenagers who has lost work and the respect of her family due to her drinking, but continues to attend the sessions, refusing to become a victim or a doormat in her battle to stay sober.
With all of this misery, it’s hard to see anything funny about the somber, arid lives these women are enduring, but Perlmutter uses humor in deft ways, through physical comedy, for example: as the women attempt to wheel an unconscious Helen (Jolyn Johnson) out to her car after being stunned with a personal taser, and through the many bon mots and one liners that bring the audience out of their own sobriety (“Utah? Isn’t that where they keep the Mormons?”) It’s the humor that livens up the proceedings, and we not only learn to feel a kinship to the women, we also begin to like them for who they are.
When a sixth member, the teenaged Raven (Crystal Hutcheson) joins the group, her presence creates a different kind of dilemma for the regulars, as they try to deal with her reality as well as her hidden reason for attending the session.
Open Meeting Closed is very well written, with Perlmutter creating distinctive characters, whose realistic motivations, back stories, and behavioral traits are colorfully displayed by the performers. Although the pace sometimes drags, the play comes to a crescendo when one of the members holds the others hostage, resulting in a standoff that is both taut and funny. Beginning July 2, Kimberly Demmary takes over in the role of Suzanne.
“Nobody comes here voluntarily,” Rebecca wryly states during the play. You should.
Open Meeting Closed plays through July 16 at the Elite Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.