Anyone who believes they have to travel to that other Washington for quality drama clearly hasn’t been to one of the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s (RAAC) off-off-Broadway performances lately.
Last weekend (Sept. 19-20), RAAC Community Theatre put on physicist-turned-playwright Robert Benjamin’s “Salt & Pepper,” a series of one-act, interconnected plays. Featuring a cast of nine from Rappahannock and surrounding counties, the two-hour production revolves around how its “chronologically gifted” characters deal with the inevitability of getting older.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the first scene, “Resting Places,” opens with Gertrude, played by Donna Chabot in her RAAC Theatre debut, feuding with the cast’s youngest member, Brendan Martyn (who not long ago portrayed Peter Pan at the Theatre).
Martyn’s impatient cameraman Chris needs Gertrude out of the way of his perfect shot. Gertrude refuses to move from her cemetery bench, however, claiming that her “diggers are on the way.” As Chris gets progressively more desperate, Gertrude continues to humorously chide him for thinking Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is “that miniseries on HBO.”
As it continues, it becomes clear Gertrude wants to be remembered. After his original star cancels on him, Chris hits upon an idea, and offers Gertrude a part in his film — which tells the story of newlyweds . . . in their 60s.
In the next scene, “Warm Ashes,” Barbara Black’s Ann is awakened at 3 a.m. by an unnamed man (Geoff Gowen) reciting Shakespeare in the B&B’s lobby. Discovering they are the B&B’s only guests that night, they strike up a conversation.
Centering first on their shared love of the Bard, their conversation gradually grows personal, with Ann remembering her prom night with Ken, the One-Who-Got-Away. With her husband having passed on, Ann confesses to the stranger that she thinks often of Ken and wonders what might have been.
Gowen, it turns out, is Ken, who reveals he has often thought about Ann and longs to reunite with her. Ann is hesitant at first, claiming that it doesn’t make sense to start a relationship at this point in their lives; the scene ends with her decision unmade.
The third scene follows recent widows Joyce (Mimi Forbes) and Wayne (John Lesinski) on their first date. In a scene that wouldn’t seem out of place in a high school drama, Joyce and Wayne sit by the pool; Wayne repeatedly offers a foot massage, something he used to do for his deceased wife.
The poignant, funny dialogue ends with Joyce acquiescing to Wayne’s request, agreeing that it might help both of them to move on.
In “Forever,” the following scene set in a post office (that not-so-subtly might also be the waiting room for Heaven), Forbes’ character makes her second appearance, waiting in line with her friend Diane (Petrina Huston) for stamps.
Though the scene begins with the two trading personal life updates — “I haven’t had a decent date since that guy who gave me the foot massage,” complains Joyce — it gradually shifts to Diane’s impending passing: She’s come to get several hundred stamps to mail out notices of her own death.
As both women wait for what seems to both to be an eternity, Joyce is aghast to learn Diane has held a pre-death funeral of sorts, where many of her friends gathered and shared memories of her. “That’s just not how things are done!” Joyce says. Diane, however, has accepted her impending death and says she’d rather be around to hear the kind words people attribute to her. The stamps are one of the last things required to fully plan her own passing.
She has also tried to “find new homes” for all of her jewelry, offering an emotional Joyce the necklace she’s wearing. In an excellent performance, Forbes’ voice breaks as she accepts her dying friend’s wish. The scene ends with Diane’s number being called; she promises to find out what happened to “48,” the number inexplicably never called by the postmaster (Judy Podlesney, in an unseen role, also credited as “the voice of God”).
A flashback to several years earlier is next, as a Diane who has only recently received her diagnosis, waits with her husband, Harry (Gary Grossman) for their grown children to arrive from the airport. Grossman and Huston have undeniable chemistry, and capture perfectly the moment when a small accident — Harry breaks one of Diane’s favorite tea cups — devolves into a full-scale argument. This Diane, we see, wasn’t yet the calm presence seen in the post office, and bitterly wonders if Harry plans to tell the whole neighborhood of her diagnosis. After Harry confesses he’s “a scared-as-hell husband,” peace is made, and Diane agrees to tell the children when they arrive — making the illness “real,” not just a secret between spouses.
The play then begins circling back, as Ann and Ken again take center stage in “Some Say.” Black spends the majority of the scene alone in a graveyard, talking to (and sometimes still angrily at) her deceased husband.
The 10-minute monologue was the night’s standout, as Ann reasons her way through hesitating to date Ken — she couldn’t risk watching another husband die, as her first husband “emotionally checked out” of their marriage once learning he was sick.
“I forgive you,” she finally says. “I forgive you for leaving me the way you did.”
Coming full-circle, “Plots” opens with Harry, who is now married to a familiar-looking woman named Barb. Together, they visit Diane’s grave, and Barb continually complains, objecting to being “left out in the cold” when Harry reveals he wants to be buried next to his ex-wife.
“The lot is prepaid!” he continually repeats, to no avail. When Harry mistakenly calls her Diane, Barb storms off for good.
“Cut!” yells Chris the cameraman, as “Barb” is revealed to be Gertrude in a red wig. Finally having his shot, Chris pays Gertrude — $20 and a dinner filled with Gertrude’s stories.
“I was so pleased to see community actors who have had smaller roles in the past get a chance to shine,” director Patty Hardee said after the performance.
“In one scene, the character of Joyce says, ‘We’ll get through this,’ to her date, Wayne,” Hardee pointed out in the evening’s playbill. “My hope is that ‘Salt & Pepper’ will help all of us ‘get through this’ with grace and humor.”