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Theater Americana 

"Babs" Corlette redeems falling scenery in Born Yesterday.

With high schools going ballistic and bombs dropping out of the sky, it's a comfort to attest that community theater is alive and well and living in Brecksville. Everyone, for the good of his or her spiritual well-being, needs to patronize one of these havens of Americana at least once a year. They offer the homey virtues of a Kiwanis weenie roast and the naive charm of a high school play. Here, audiences are unashamedly overweight, with the men sporting self-dramatizing toupees and gold chains, while the women have cast-iron permanents and Easter-egg-colored tennis shoes.

Brecksville is a New England-like distillation of wholesome, small-town Hollywood. One expects to see Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey selling lemonade or Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds passing out programs. Brecksville City Hall recently has been refurbished in cheerful pastels and brass trim. The walls are covered in endearingly inept caricatures of noted thespians who have put in decades of service.

How appropriate to see Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday on the Old Town Hall Theater's toy stage. This 53-year-old sleeping beauty tale posits that a couple months of book learning with a dimpled tutor in tortoise-shell glasses can turn a shallow gangster's moll into an avenging Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the real world, this play might seem as creaky as grandma's old rocking chair and as antiquated as Great-Aunt Maude's snood. Yet here in this local Brigadoon, where parents cart babies to the theater and everyone is a relative or co-worker of the cast members, it all seems as right as rain. All the special bonuses that make this kind of theater special are in place: the glaring anachronisms (mini-nightgowns in 1946; a flowered J.C. Penney dress, on a senator's wife, that seems about as 1940s as a cellular phone) and wildly inappropriate set designs (a high-priced Washington hotel with flowered chintz sofas and flounced curtains that would have embarrassed Minnie Pearl).

If the actors face the audience, spit out their gum, keep their flies up, and don't bump into the furniture, they fulfill their part of the bargain, yet here there is an extra dividend. Barbara Corlette, known in theater circles as "La Bubateena," is the undisputed diva of community theater, and with 350 roles and counting, she is a phenomenon. As Billie Dawn, she is a superb mimic and comedienne who, whenever she is on stage, pulls the audience's faces out of their programs. After the performance, she holds court to her adoring fans like a blushing Miss America.

Though a good twenty years too old for his role, Dick Klimaczewski's surly gangster, Harry Brock, is the embodiment of everyone's distant memory of a deliciously unapologetic, mean-spirited, red-faced, long-gone yet somehow magnetic misanthrope who hovers in our consciousness. Klimaczewski ad-libbed the evening's best line: In an embarrassing moment when a big strip of wallpaper unexpectedly took a dive off the cardboard flats, he disdainfully eyeballed the damage, and without missing a beat, quipped, "Two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day for a hotel suite, and they don't even fix the wallpaper."

It's for moments like this that audiences should attend community theater.

--Joseph

Born Yesterday, through May 1 at the Brecksville City Hall, 9069 Brecksville Road, Brecksville, 440-526-4351.

More by Keith A. Joseph

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