Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presents the world premiere of “The Last, Best Small Town,” a modern-day “Our Town” by L.A.-based Latinx playwright John Guerra.
“The Last, Best Small Town,” performances begin Saturday, July 31 on Theatricum’s beautiful outdoor stage in Topanga, where they continue through November 7.
Spanning the years 2005 to 2009 and narrated by the playwright (Leandro Cano, seen in American Falls at Echo Theater Company, Colony Collapse at Boston Court), “The Last, Best Small Town” introduces us to a pair of neighboring families in the nearby Ventura County town of Fillmore — the self-proclaimed “Last, Best Small Town in Southern California.”
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. 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.
As the early years of the 21st century unfold, we watch Maya and Elliot come of age in a world that can no longer promise them a better life than their parents had.
“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.”
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.”
The creative team for “The Last Best Small Town” includes lighting designer Zach Moore; sound designer Grant Escandón; costume designer Beth Eslick; and prop master Emily Hucal. Kim Cameron is the production stage manager. The production is sponsored, in part, by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
“The Last, Best Small Town” will run in repertory every weekend with “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” each of which open earlier in the season. Unlike most theaters in the L.A. area that stage continuous runs of a single play, Theatricum, using a company of actors, will perform each of the plays in repertory, making it possible to see all three plays in a single summer weekend. The 2021 Summer Repertory Season is sponsored by the S. Mark Taper Foundation.
Theatricum Botanicum has been named “One of the 50 Coolest Places in Los Angeles” by Buzz magazine, “One of Southern California’s most beguiling theater experiences” by Sunset magazine, and “Best Theater in the Woods” by the LA Weekly. “The enchantment of a midsummer night at Theatricum Botanicum [makes it] crystal clear why audiences have been driving up into the hills since Theatricum’s maiden season way back in 1973. Summer Shakespeare doesn’t get any better than this,” writes StageSceneLA. Says Los Angeles magazine, “The amphitheater feels like a Lilliputian Hollywood Bowl, with pre-show picnics and puffy seat cushions, yet we were close enough to see the stitching on the performers costumes. Grab a blanket and a bottle and head for the hills.” In 2017, Theatricum was named “one of the best outdoor theaters around the world” by the Daily Beast.
Theatricum’s beginnings can be traced to the early 1950s when Will Geer, a victim of the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist (before he became known as the beloved Grandpa on The Waltons), opened a theater for blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property in Topanga. Friends such as Ford Rainey, John Randolph and Woody Guthrie joined him on the dirt stage for vigorous performances and inspired grassroots activism, while the audiences sat on railroad ties. Today, two outdoor amphitheaters are situated in the natural canyon ravine, where audiences are able to relax and enjoy the wilderness during an afternoon or evening’s performance. Theatricum’s main stage amphitheater sports a new and improved sun shade for increased audience comfort, installed with support from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Ralph M. Parson’s Foundation. Theatricum is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Margaret Harford Award for “sustained excellence,” which is the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s highest honor.
Theatricum’s outdoor amphitheater is terraced into the Topanga Canyon hillside, so audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating.
Seating will remain socially distanced and masks required as dictated by L.A. County guidelines on the day of each performance.
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