Be warned. Despite its pleasant title, "Betty's Summer Vacation" is no picnic.
Inspired by public scandals of the 1990s (think O.J. Simpson, Monica and Bill, Lorena Bobbitt, et al), this dark farce covers rape, incest, murder, sex and other unsavory topics in an effort to satirize contemporary preoccupation with horror, tragedy, conflict and deviant behavior. The action is peppered with adult language and subject matter, so leave the kids at home.
Heidelberg University is to stage Christopher Durang's award-winning off-Broadway comedy at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday in Gundlach Theatre on campus. Chris Tucci, assistant professor of theater, is directing.
PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER
Trudy (Melissa Tippin, left) and Betty (Leigh Barthel) are shown in a scene from “Betty’s Summer Vacation.”
The curtain opens on a cheerful beach house that has been rented for the summer by a collection of exaggerated stock characters. There is Betty, the young woman who just wants to relax and sun herself on the beach. She enters with a pretty, talkative acquaintance, Trudy. They are played by Leigh Barthel and Melissa Tippin, respectively.
Soon after they arrive, they hear laughter, like a sitcom laugh track. The women are startled, but the intrusive voices seem harmless enough.
Next on the scene is the softspoken Keith, with shovel and hat box in hand. In that role is Justin Varney, who maintains a polite manner and mysterious smile throughout the play.
The house has five bedrooms, and the characters move in one by one.
Katelyn Hough as the domineering Mrs. Seismagraff sweeps in, bottle in hand, announcing herself as the owner of the cottage. She says her husband has died and left her with no other place to stay, but she seems unconcerned about her predicament. When Trudy slips and calls her "Mother," the audience learns Trudy has separated herself from her dysfunctional parents. After "Mom" disappears into her room, Mackenzie Wallace stomps in as the macho Buck with a box of brews and a large handweight. He wastes no time inviting the women to sleep with him, but they politely decline.
The voices express pleasure with the motley characters and their potential for some raunchy activity. They react with extra volume when Trudy and Buck come in from the beach. Annoyed, Buck shouts, "Shut up."
Suspicious of Buck, Trudy invites Keith to come out and join the conversation. He appears at his door with bloody hands and says, "I'm busy now."
If that were not enough, Seismagraff brings in Mr. Vanislaw, played by Adam Oulton. He appears to be a perverted vagrant she met at the beach, but Seismagraff has invited him to dinner with the rest of the tenants.
Vanislaw's introduction is to expose himself to everyone. The voices react with glee and start offering distorted comments about what has transpired. After the initial shock, Vanislaw buttons his tattered coat and everyone carries on as if nothing happened.
All participate in an after-dinner game of charades before retreating to their rooms or leaving the cottage. To put off doing dishes, Betty takes the voices' suggestion to go for a walk. Then they loudly complain of boredom because nothing is happening.
When the characters reappear, some shocking action ensues and continues into Act II.
As the chaos escalates, debris drops from the ceiling and the voices materialize in frightening, faceless human forms. The shadowy creatures begin to make demands on the characters for more violence and decadence. They anticipate a trial that is about to unfold and say they are hoping for the death penalty.
Providing the persistent voices are A.J. Lacefield, Marina Rickley and Chaylene Ehrman.
The voices persuade Seismagraff to act out the courtroom scene. She agrees to be the prosecutor and calls the others to the stand to be the witnesses. Hough exhausts herself with melodramatic testimony of a mother who failed to protect her suffering daughter from abuse.
Hough's outrageous antics are sure to get a laugh from the crowd in spite of the serious nature of the trial.
Although Betty objects and intervenes with the voice of reason, mayhem breaks out before the explosive conclusion. She is the only one to escape from the doomed beach house.
This reviewer regards Betty as the typical everyman (or woman) who tries to carry on with a normal life and ignore the madness all around her. She endures disasters by maintaining her integrity and shutting out the mania constantly magnified, promoted and exaggerated in the media to attract viewers.
The voices represent the dark side of human nature with its appetite for the bizarre. The playwright appears to be using this surreal story to suggest a vacation from continuous, lurid entertainment that could lead to cultural destruction.
I have left out as much detail as possible while trying to give theater-goers a taste of what they will see. Those who attend a performance must keep in mind the playwright is trying to make a statement about modern-day culture and its fixation on gossip and sordid human affairs. Since it was written, we have added fascination with Sept. 11, reality television, the proliferation of social media and insidious NSA activity to the list.
"Betty's Summer Vacation" is a far cry from the upbeat musicals on the high school stages. It was an enlightening but brave choice by Tucci to bring daring drama from New York to Tiffin.
Drew Fons handles the sound effects, which include sound bites of suggestive commercials and talk show previews in the dark between scenes. Stage manager Melissa Herrera-Ortiz keeps the set in order and picks up the props that fall off the stage.
For ticket information, call the box office at (419) 448-2305.