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Waiting in the Wings

Noel Coward play opens in Olympia

Photo credit: Olympia Little Theatre

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The witty title Waiting in the Wings is the kind of turn of phrase playwright Noel Coward is famous for. Actors wait in the wings before going on stage, but in Coward's play, which runs this weekend only as a staged reading at Olympia Little Theatre, "The Wings" is the name of a retirement home for aging actresses. Coward devoted much of his life to supporting and raising funds for theatrical charities like the retirement home in this play, and is said to have written it as a tribute to the many actresses he had friended throughout his career.

The play opens on a Sunday afternoon in June with the women in The Wings discussing an upcoming charity event. The woman break it to May Davenport (whose part will be read by Gail Madden at OLT) that her old adversary, Lotta Bainbridge (Claire McPherson) will soon be moving in. The two women were once in love with the same man. May is furious and vows never to speak to Lotta, and what naturally ensues is comedy of the farcical type.

Perry (Leon Schilling), the secretary to the charity that runs The Wings, invites a journalist friend named Zelda (Tiffany Grassman) to visit the home. The first resident the journalist encounters is Sarita (Bitsy Bidwell), who thinks she is still a young leading lady. Sarita accidentally sets fire to her room and is later taken away and placed in a mental hospital. As the plot thickens, a resident drops dead during a party, and finally Lotta's son, fathered by the man she and May were both in love with, shows up with the intention of inviting Lotta to leave The Wings and come live with him and his wife and children.

Other actors in the OLT reading are: Kiki Keizer, Judy Criss, Barbara Braid, Anita Pirkle, Betty Brinkman, Jacqueline Plett, Barbara Ann Smith, Kim Kessler, Lynn Couch, Diana Purvine, and John Schilling. It is directed by Kathryn Beall.

Beall said, "There is a theater group in Seattle called Endangered Species Project and their mission is to produce staged-readings of plays that are not typically produced in today's theater. In 2012, when I attended the Seattle Rep's production of Or (about playwright Aprhra Behn) and ESP did a special staged-reading of one of Behn's plays as an adjutant event to the show. I thought it was so cool - and a really great idea for expanding the range of plays that OLT could do. The format side-steps some of the physical challenges that certain shows present in our space, and it also would allow OLT to do shorter runs of shows which might have a more limited audience appeal such as Angels in America (which OLT did a year ago).

The OLT website quotes a New York magazine review as saying, "There is wit, charity, stoicism, and enormous theatrical know-how in Waiting in the Wings."  Having never seen the play, I searched online for information, but could find only a synopsis that was not clearly written and reviews of the 2000 revival that panned it as being far from Coward's best work.

Coward himself wrote of it: "I wrote Waiting in the Wings with loving care and absolute belief in its characters. I consider that the reconciliation between Lotta and May ... are two of the best scenes I have ever written. I consider that the play as a whole contains, beneath the froth of some of its lighter moments, the basic truth that old age needn't be nearly so dreary and sad as it is supposed."

Ironically, the play's first performance was in Dublin in 1960 at the Olympia Theatre. Wings was Coward's 50th published play.  Although some of the language may seem dated, the situation, characters and relationships are timeless.

WAITING IN THE WINGS, a staged reading, 7:55 p.m. March 3-6 and 1:55 p.m. March 7, Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, tickets $11-$15, available at Yenney Music, 2703 Capital Mall Dr., Olympia, 360.786.9484,

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