Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Walls of Jericho
Pear Theatre

Also see Eddie's reviews of Homeward Bound: An Orphan Train Journey and Chicago


Sarah Cook and Drew Reitz
A bare stage of just a few chairs, an occasional table, and two appearing/disappearing twin beds is transformed into crowded bus, dilapidated car, swamps and countryside, ferry, a series of beaneries and diners, and a week's worth of cheap tourist camps along the 1933 Eastern coastline. Through parenthetical words and short descriptors tossed to us by passing cast members, scenes are painted, moods are set, and inner thoughts are said aloud. Diane Tasca has adapted a short story, "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams, into Pear Theatre's initial offering in a new facility and new season, the world premiere of The Walls of Jericho. Already known by many of a certain generation, since the same story is the basis for the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, the romantic comedy is prime to delight through the repartee and funny situations of the travelers we are about to meet.

Sitting next to each other in the back of the bus are the two unlikeliest of would-be lovers. However, it is soon clear from Peter Warne's wandering eyes and decision to share his sweater as a blanket that he is already smitten with the young woman, Elspeth Andrews, next to him. Not that there is much chance that a guy with only a few bucks in his Depression-impacted pocket will get far with a young woman whose sophisticated, societal looks from head to toe seem incongruous to her being on an uncomfortable bus headed from Miami to New York. The beginning of their long journey is full of bumps as each immediately begins to fire challenges and insults toward the other, as her desire to seep in a long bath at their first stop leads to their being stranded in the middle of nowhere, and as she is robbed of her one bag. The latter incident also leaves her with only a few bucks on her person—a state she clearly has never been in before.

The misadventures of those first few miles pale in comparison to what lies ahead for the socialite escaping a domineering father to have a possible fling with a reckless aviator, and a near-penniless guy looking for financial backers for his idea how to make pine tar into the next great product. Before they land exhausted, hungry, and considerably dumpier looking on the shores of Manhattan five days later, they will meet a host of the country's best and worst along the roadside, learn to exist on carefully allocated potatoes and pecans, and be forced to escape from a slimy charlatan in the dark of night in a leaky boat. And all along the way, these two will continue to spar with vengeance while also increasingly giving into their growing, mutual attraction.

As Elspeth Andrews and Peter Warne, Sarah Cook and Drew Reitz show good dexterity of character portrayal. Each skillfully maneuvers the landmines set by the other in their little war of words and wills. He and she progressively tap a delightful and often funny dance of approach and avoidance as attraction begins to take over. Both actors are careful not to overplay (or overact) the ever more desperate but also silly situations set before them. They keep their Elspeth and Peter enigmatic enough to keep us guessing what is going to be the next twist or turn in their journey toward possible but improbable mating. But the subtle, somewhat conservative way their relationship develops misses sparks of sexual attraction and magnetism that could add more humor and zest to an overall low-key affair. Even when the two rise in anger or exasperation toward each other, there is not quite enough tension or underlying looks of longing and lust to produce a fire that could up the energy of the overall production.

And it is the overall pace of the production where the greatest problems currently lie, something that will likely and hopefully improve in subsequent performances. The many shifts in scenes from Florida to New York—from vehicles to cafes to cabins—occur with too much labor and time. Beds are carried on and off versus just blackened out with lighting. The same is true for a recurring cafĂ© table. Directorially, Caroline Clark seems to have her actors moving in speech and pace with too many pregnant pauses and action gaps that diminish the comedic aspects of the story. Again, part of this slow motion acting may be due to just to the first night of a new work.

The many lesser characters who often pop on and off quickly are played in full fun and flurry. Keith Larson is a slimy, sneaky Shapley (among other parts) who is out first to get his hands all over Elspeth and later to get his paws on some of her dad's money. Leslie Newport shifts with ease from diner waitress with an attitude to various hick-motel proprietresses to farm wife right out of "Hee Haw." Todd Wright comes close to stealing the show time and again with a cave-sized mouth and eyes that can squint and sparkle at the same time as he plays a bossy, couldn't-give-a-damn bus driver; a seemingly nice man named Thad ("Just call me Uncle") who has a darker side; and several other eccentric characters who always bring laughs as they make their ways in and out of the story. Dave Sikula, as the Scottish-brogue father of Elspeth, and Stephanie Whigham in several roles, including a society friend hit hard by 1929, round out the cast.

Much potential lies in Diane Tasca's adaptation and in this ensemble's noble attempt to bring to the live stage a story many know from the classic movie screen of yesteryear. With some tightening of scenes and quickening of overall pace, The Walls of Jericho may grow some legs for the future.

The Walls of Jericho continues at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View through October 4, 2015. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.


Photo: Ray Renati


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area

- Eddie Reynolds


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