‘Light Up the Sky’ at SBCC is a love letter to the stage

Raymond Wallenthin, Marisol Miller-Wave, Stephanie Erb, David Holmes and Susie Couch star in SBCC Theatre Group's production of "Light Up the Sky. Ben Crop
Raymond Wallenthin, Marisol Miller-Wave, Stephanie Erb, David Holmes and Susie Couch star in SBCC Theatre Group’s production of “Light Up the Sky.
Ben Crop

Moss Hart, when he was sharing writing duties with George S. Kaufman, created a classic of theater with “You Can’t Take It with You,” a comedy that is still a repertory staple to this day. But he also wrote solo, and his last play, “Light Up the Sky,” has undergone a revival since 2009. This screwball comedy is a satire of theater itself, with a young playwright being put through the emotional wringer as his play is heralded, then bombs, then earns respect. Along the way, Mr. Hart writes delicious roles for every member of the cast. And that’s one of the reasons that SBCC Theatre Group’s R. Michael Gros has chosen it for this current season. “Light Up the Sky” runs through March 21.

“Hart shows his characters in the most loving moments but also when they’re at each others’ throats due to anxiety and ego,” Mr. Gros says. In the end, this is an affectionate play, and contemporary audiences would have spotted satirical jabs at Broadway starts Gertrude Lawrence, Billy Rose and Guthrie McClintic, but for today’s audience it won’t matter. Mr. Hart trades in archetypes, hilarious ones.

Set mostly in the Ritz-Carlton room belonging to actress Irene Livingstone (Stephanie Erb) before the premiere of his first play, truck driver-turned-scribe Peter Sloane (Joshua Daniel Hershfield) is nervous but hopeful. He’s also surrounded by well-wishers: Irene’s cynical mother Stella (Susie Couch); assured producer Sidney (Raymond Wallenthin) and his wife Frances (Marisol Miller-Wave); Carleton Fitzgerald (David Holmes), the play within a play’s overly dramatic director; and Owen Turner (David Couch), an older playwright who has come to either celebrate in the play’s success or its demise, and who is closest to Moss Hart, autobiographically.

If two names look familiar, it’s those of Susie and David Couch, who recently closed down their Circle Bar B Dinner Theater after 40 years. Talk about the heartache of theater, which is one of the themes of the play. (The couple is currently working on a production themselves, and Mr. Gros has been moving rehearsals around to accommodate that.)

“They’re trying to keep that connection to Circle Bar B alive,” Mr. Gros says. “And we’ve been very supportive of that. We’re all a big theater family.”

Mr. Hershfield was last seen at Circle Bar B in “The Importance of Being Ernest” and has worked under Mr. Gros in “Present Laughter” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Also in the cast: Matt Cooper, Vinicius Santana Dasilva, Edward Dovzhanksy, Caesar Franco, Matthew Lavigne, Joakim Leopold, Terry Li and Stuart Orenstein.

The play contains things all actors can sympathize with, Mr. Gros says, “the highs and lows, the happiness of opening, and sometimes the crush of a review or the thrill of putting on a brand-new play.”

As Mr. Gros has spent a lot of his time at SBCC putting on new works, why did he go back to a 1948 play?

“I’ve never directed a Moss Hart play before,” he says. “And here’s this play that is a kind of a modern American classic with smart, snappy dialog, while having a sharp edge to it . . . Plays about theater people are attractive to theater people.”

On top of that, the large cast allows Mr. Gros to cast a mix of student actors, community actors and one Equity actor. The large set puts the entire backstage department to work, and the vintage costumes keeps the students in the wardrobe department busy.

“I hope people come away having experienced witty dialog,” Mr. Gros says. “And a wonderful behind the scenes look at creative types at both their best and their worst, in a loving and kind way.”

“Light Up the Sky”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 21
Where: SBCC’s Garvin Theatre, 721 Cliff Dr.
Cost: $8-$24
Information: (805) 965-5935, www.theatregroupsbcc.com

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