Experience “The Last, Best Small Town” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Deep in Topanga Canyon woods in Malibu off the side of the road lies an outdoor theatre that has been delighting audiences since the 1950s. It was first built as a refuge for blacklisted artists victimized by the McCarthy Era injustices. Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware built a performance space on their property back then as well as cultivated a large garden and orchard, earning a living by selling the produce off the land. In 1973 the veteran actor who played “Grandpa” on The Waltons television series gathered family members (who were working in theatres across the nation) to form a nonprofit corporation which soon expanded to arts education and musical events.

Today the heart of Theatricum Botanicum is the Repertory Company where the company performs Shakespearean plays but also classics and contemporary pieces speaking to the social conscience of our modern society. Recently, the wooden planks salvaged from the old Santa Monica pier in 1984 to construct the stage and seating had to be replaced. Learn more about the theater’s educational programs and history.

Sponsored by the S. Mark Taper Foundation, Theatricum’s 2021 Season is back, and after the halt in life we all adjusted to in 2020 and beyond, it certainly felt like pure magic to experience shared stories and emotions under a canopy of coastal oaks. It had been many years since our return here.

We heard theater goers raving about the new productions of the 80 minute Julius Caesar (July 10 – October 30) performed from the perspective of the mysterious Soothsayer and the 80 minute A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 11 – November 7) returning with magic, romance, and original music.

The Last, Best Small Town is a new powerful performance worthy of your time written by the young playwright John Guerra and continues through November 6. The acting is exceptional.

Modern-day neighbors, the Gonzalez and Miller families navigate their intertwined American lives from totally different cultural perspectives all while growing up next door to each other in the Ventura County town of Fillmore, California. As the first decade of the 21st century unfolds, the children of these families come of age, fall in love and suffer loss in a world that can no longer promise them a better life than their parents had.

Kelvin Morales and Miguel Pérez
Photo by Ian Flanders

Dreams are dashed or altered and life unfolds in a way that may have not been what the characters imagine, such is true in real life. Powerful and moving, the show’s unexpected turns takes viewers through an emotional ride where one can find their own struggles and joys in this beautifully written story. I had to hold back weeping on several occasions with themes of marriage difficulties and divorce, the effects of war, not wanting to disappoint your parents, giving up college to not straddle your family in financial hardships, young love that doesn’t always pan out, cultural stereotypes, family expectations, and different ethnic and social class backgrounds coexisting and trying to obtain the American Dream… Many of these ideas will connect with viewers along with the stark reality of life not always turning out the way we imagined.

PLAY SUMMARY:

Hank and Willow Miller (Theatricum company members Christopher Wallinger and Christine Breihan) and Benny and Della Gonzalez (Richard Azurdia, seen in Human Interest Story at the Fountain and Katia Gomez, who appears in the soon-to-be released Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon starring Kate Hudson) have been neighbors for years. The Millers are a perfect picture of the American Dream. Hank Miller is editor of the local paper, while Willow is a stay-at-home mom who loves fitness and her children. Their daughter, Maya (recent USC grad Jordan Tyler Kessler), excels at everything she attempts. Tensions rise as the husband hides money issues and the daughter follows in love with an unexpected childhood friend.

Katia Gomez and Richard Azurdia
Photo by Ian Flanders

Meanwhile, Benny Gonzalez must rise early each morning to catch a bus to work at a local car dealership, while Della spends her days cleaning houses — including, occasionally, those of her neighbors. On top of all this, Benny’s hard drinking father (Shakespearean-trained Miguel Pérez, whose innumerable film and TV credits include Oceans 11 and Million Dollar Baby) is a constant source of frustration for the Gonzalezes — unlike their son, Elliot (Kelvin Morales), who has been named class valedictorian and seems about to make all of Benny and Della’s sacrifices worthwhile. But will their son follow his dreams?

Christopher Wallinger and Christine Breihan
Photo by Ian Flanders

FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT:

Playwright John Guerra from Carpenteria shares how he loved Our Town by Thornton Wilder but he could not relate to a white New Englander living at the dawn of the 20th century. “I’m a half Mexican southern Californian who came of age in the height of the housing crisis. But there is still something that speaks to me in Our Town.” He recounts how he can see himself (the struggle and joys) in the depiction of small-town life.

“I grew up in a big road trip family, and Fillmore featured prominently in many of them,” explains Guerra. “I remember watching from the backseat as Fillmore grew and grew. But by the time I was an adult, that growth seemed to have slowed considerably. It felt like a metaphor for what we, as a nation, were facing in the years following the financial crisis of 2008. So I decided to write this play.”

Like the two families in his play, Guerra grew up straddling two worlds. His mother’s family is from Mexico via Boyle Heights, while his father is Caucasian, from the Midwest.

“The play is also a way for me to reckon with my own identity,” Guerra continues. “A lot of the issues that Maya and Elliot struggle with were my own as I came of age, and the conversations about race they are forced to confront are ones that, as someone who is mixed, are constantly going on within myself.”

Playwright John Guerra
Photo by Rebecca Aranda

The show also reminds us that the only thing constant is change.

Learn more by listening to an interview with John Guerra on “Greater L.A.” at KCRW 89.9 FM.

Theatricum’s Ellen Geer directs, and Kayla Ibarra assistant directs. 

“It’s such a beautifully written play, with so much depth,” Geer says “You see the differences and complexities in the cultures of these White and Latinx families who live next to one another in the same town. Their different lives and the way they make choices. When we did a reading, I couldn’t believe its power.”

Photo by Ian Flanders

Masks are required in the outdoor theater but not while walking around the property.

The Last, Best Small Town opened Saturday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. and continues through November 6.

For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, call 310455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com.

TICKET PRICES
• Adults: $42 (lower tier/assigned seating); $26 (upper tier/general seating); premium lower tier seating available for $60
• Seniors (65+), Students, Military Veterans, Teachers, AEA Members: $25/$15
• Children (5-15): $10
• Children 4 and under: Free
• Four Pay-What-You-Will performances: SundayAug. 22 at 7:30 p.m.Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m.Sunday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 31 at 4 p.m.

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)

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