For its second main stage production this summer, the Women’s Theatre Festival offers the premiere of Chapel Hill resident Steffi Rubin’s first play, “The Woodstock Tontine.” This warm, funny look at long-term bonds among friends fulfills the festival’s mission of presenting shows written and directed by women, featuring predominantly female casts.
The play begins with the funeral of Valerie, one of six women who met in 1969 at the historic Woodstock Festival. She had been the glue keeping them all in touch, and now, nearly five decades later, the remaining friends have a reunion. In a hotel bar, they catch up and reminisce, laughing over sexual escapades and lost loves, while poking gentle fun at their life choices and failed dreams.
Financial planner Roberta proposes they all contribute cash to a tontine, an investment setup that pays out to the last person alive. The others agree amid much joking about who will die first and who deserves the prize. Dwindling reunions at successive funerals follow, all the while revealing aspects of each character previously unknown to the others.
Rubin’s writing is intelligent, humane and witty. She has an obvious flair for humorous banter but also supplies characters with intriguing talents and quirks. Director Lucia Foster gets personable performances from her actors, who give off an aura of love and respect for each other.
Judy McCord has the largest share of dialogue as Roberta, who talks, complains and, ultimately, cares the most. McCord knows how to deliver a punch line, coloring it with acerbic tone. At Friday’s opening, she was still getting her lines down in several lengthy monologues but her strong presence and clear enunciation were assets.
Jennifer Kuzma’s Trudy is an offbeat free spirit, one who hasn’t lost her hippie vibe over years of traveling the world, a loner who actually doesn’t want to be alone. Julie Oliver contributes an appealing personality as German-born Veronika, whose seeming lack of experience brings on much laughter. Lisa Leonard’s Shelley is appropriately carefree and unapologetic about her active sex life, while Verlene Oates is an audience favorite as B.J. with a flamboyant persona and an abundance of one-liners.
Friday’s opening revealed some inadequate preparation that likely will be worked out by this week’s performances. The actors’ timing was often ragged, making some jokes fall flat and some scenes leaden-paced. Scene changes were unnecessarily long and unorganized. Historical images were erratically and distractingly projected.
Rubin’s impressive first attempt at writing a play includes some elements that could be improved. The dialogue tends to repeat information the audience already knows. Despite their clever humor, there are too many one-liners, often breaking up nicely drawn moments. The concept of the tontine doesn’t drive the plot in ways its emphasis seems to set up.
Still, Friday’s enthusiastic audience made it plain that material of this nature is wanted and needed. If the production’s imperfections suggest that higher standards need to be met, the effort itself deserves encouragement.
What: “The Woodstock Tontine” presented by The Women’s Theatre Festival
Where: Burning Coal Theatre, 224 Polk St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. July 14-15; 3 p.m. July 16
Info: 919-740-2736 or womenstheatrefestival.com