by Paul Recupero

The world is coming to an end. You have one day left. What do you do?

John Jerbasi and Sarah Meinel star in Footlighters Theater's production of EARLY ONE EVENING AT THE RAINBOW BAR & GRILL, playing in Berwyn, PA through November 6.

This is the question tackled by Bruce Graham’s apocalyptic dramacomedy, EARLY ONE EVENING AT THE RAINBOW BAR & GRILLE, currently playing at the Footlighters Theatre in Berwyn. Forget mass hysteria and anarchy in the streets. If your name is Shep and you tend a bar in western Pennsylvania, it’s merely business as usual.

Graham’s intelligent and humorous (yes, humorous) script keeps everything low-key. The reason for Armageddon is mostly left ambiguous, other than it appears to be manmade. That’s not the focus of the play. Instead, we zero in on a well defined group of strangely upbeat small town folk as they unceremoniously come to grips with their impending doom. (Think “On the Beach” rather than “Dr. Strangelove”.)

We encounter the characters through their interactions with easy going bartender, Shep (John Jerbasi). There’s Roy (John Trapani), the fireman who’s playing one last winner-take-all hand of cards; Willy (Joe Fortunato), the local marksman who’s intent on offing his dentist before the end arrives; Shirley (Marcy Broden), the barmaid who wants to have a wild goodbye fling; Bullard (Ron Hill), the traveling salesman who’s just passing through; and Virginia (Sarah Meinel), the high school gym (er, I mean “health and physical education”) teacher who’s determined to head out west to be with family.

A large part of the plot focuses on Shep and Virginia, who start antagonistically at their first encounter and gradually develop feelings for each other. Then God walks into the bar. Yes, it sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but that’s exactly what happens…or is it? Consequently, Shep and Virginia begin to reevaluate everything that was (is) important in their lives. (The play’s tone reminded me a bit of the 1998 independent Canadian film “Last Night”, starring Sandra Oh, which is recommended viewing to those involved in this production.)

EARLY ONE EVENING is the sort of show that would easily fall apart in the hands of a lesser director. I am pleased to announce that that is not the case here. Director Hugh Abbott and his cast of magnificent actors undertake this piece with gusto. Through the well-paced, witty dialogue and each specific character choice, the actors throw themselves into every nook and cranny of Graham’s script. As a result, the audience buys into it also. This could only be the consequence of a meticulous rehearsal process, and I hope Abbott and his cast realize how well it paid off.

The chemistry between Jerbasi and Meinel is excellent. I was particularly impressed with Meinel, who balances several different emotions during the course of the play and handles them all with ease. Their interactions with Joe (Joe Lawless), who alludes that he is the divinity, are no less powerful. Lawless, with his navy suit and power tie and matter-of-fact demeanor, captures the audience’s attention upon his first entrance and never lets go.

As the title would suggest, the setting of the play is a character in and of itself. Footlighters’ set of the Rainbow Bar (designed by Lesley Serruta), complete with payphone, jukebox and refrigerator, is impressively intricate. And, although these may be part of the script, I was a fan of the music selections from the jukebox, which appropriately set the mood when no dialogue could suffice.

The only criticism I have is with the backstage sound effects, which are not loud and clear enough. Usually we get the idea of what each effect is supposed to represent, even if it comes across as less than authentic. However, there is one major sound cue near the end of the play, which seemingly signifies a tragic consequence for certain characters, that I didn’t understand.

It was a shame that, on the night I attended, the audience barely outnumbered the actors. Granted, it was Game 6 of the NLCS. But now that the Phillies are out until spring, you should make every effort to catch this fantastic production before the run comes to its own ultimate demise.

by Bruce Graham
Directed by Hugh Abbott
October 22 – November 6, 2010
Footlighters Theater
58 Main Ave
Berwyn, PA

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