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THEATER REVIEW: OnStage’s “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday”

Guilt can stop you in your tracks as surely as the Grim Reaper can put you underground.

David (Stephen Schmitz), a 37-year-old widower, hasn’t yet gotten over his wife Gillian’s untimely death in a fall from the mast of a sailboat. That was two years ago, and he seems to have spent those years lost in a fog of regret, guilt and reminiscence at their beach house off the coast of New England.

The problem is that he doesn’t even seem to notice that 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Janelle Urie) needs him now more than ever.

Michael Brady’s “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday” plays through April 13 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista, with Charles Peters directing.

Gillian (DeNae Steele), an anthropologist of some renown, was out in the field more than she was home with her family. These days David seems to be following in her footsteps psychologically, spending more time talking to Gillian’s ghost or jogging with Rachel’s friend, 16-year-old neighbor Cindy (Allison Edmonds), than he does with his own daughter.

This weekend will bring visitors: David’s sister-in-law Esther (Michelle Burkhart) and her husband Paul (Justin Allen Slagle) with a “surprise visitor,” whose gender and dramatic purpose are not difficult to guess. Esther, a psychologist and Gillian’s sister, has told David (probably for the 58th time) “Gil is not coming back. And you don’t honor her memory by giving up on your own life.”

The surprise visitor turns out to be 28-year-old Kevin (Alyssa Anne Schechter), whose parents wanted a boy so they gave her a boy’s name. Kevin is a recent divorcee, and though she (like everyone else) finds David a tough person to get through to, it’s clear from her entrance what will happen.

The problem with this play is that it is too long, given its slight premise and unsympathetic main character. I, too, wanted to knock Mr. Mope upside the head and tell him to forget about himself and pay attention to Rachel, his only current responsibility.

The length of the play is not Peters’ fault, but his leisurely pacing does not help. This is not an action piece, but neither does it need to take two and a half hours.

Chad Oakley and Charles Peters’ set design is a definite plus – I never cease to be amazed at the expansive look of OnStage productions on the wide but shallow space allotted.

There’s some fine acting here, most notably by Justin Allen Slagle, whose just-a-guy interpretation of Paul lights up the stage every time he enters. He has a great partner and foil in Michelle Burkhart, who plays the exasperated Esther to perfection.

Urie’s Rachel has the right look and attitude, but the vagaries of the space require her to speak up more than she did on opening night in order to be heard. Perhaps directly facing the audience more and the sides less would help.

Schmitz does what he can with the strangely written part of the clueless David, whose odd agreement with Gillian about Rachel is weird enough without his puzzling behavior with that little twit Cindy. Edmonds works hard, but Brady needs to rethink both of those parts.

Schechter is fine as Kevin, though it’s difficult to comprehend why she’d want to put up with the impossible David at all.

DeNae Steele is an engaging presence as the ghost of the departed.

The details

“To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday” plays through April 13 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., near F Street, Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.

OnStage to take this play to 2013 AACT Fest

OnStage Playhouse’s production of Michael Brady’s “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday” has been chosen to represent Region 8 in the 2013 National American Association of Community Theatres Festival (AACT Fest).

“We are very proud of this production and the efforts of director, cast and crew. This is a first for OnStage and we are thrilled to represent our community and region as one of 12 best-of-the-best productions nationwide,” Artistic Director Teri Brown said.

Each year for AACT Fest, the American Association of Community Theatres brings together over 7,000 theatres from around the United States, its territories and theatre companies consisting of members of our armed services stationed overseas. Over 600 theatre enthusiasts are expected to attend this American Association of Community Theatre premier event. The public is welcome to attend all activities.

"From the very first days of rehearsal it was evident there was a magical quality evolving with the cast and this show. And now I am humbled and honored that we have been chosen to represent the great theatre city of San Diego at the AACT Nationals," director Charles Peters said.

OnStage needs the public's help to get there. Tax-deductible contributions will be welcomed. An estimated $15,000 is needed for airfare, accommodations, shipping of set/costumes/props and entry fees. To support and contribute, please visit OnStage's website HERE or mail a donation to: OnStage Playhouse P.O. Box 120044, Chula Vista, CA 91912.

The cast and crew will be travelling to Carmel, Ind. to attend the Festival, which runs June 17-23, 2013. Directed by Charles Peters, this production of "To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday" features a multi-talented cast: Michelle Burkhart, Allison Edmonds, Alyssa Anne Schechter, Stephen Schmitz, Justin Allen Slagle, DeNae Steele and Janelle Urie. Leah Vianna, the show’s Assistant Director and Stage Manager, will also be attending the festival.