Magic is being made at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre, and not just the slight-of-hand illusions in Alby Selznick’s much-extended Smoke And Mirrors at the Road-on-Lankershim. Magic of the purely theatrical sort lights up the stage of The Road’s spiffy new Magnolia space with the West Coast Premiere of Craig Wright’s Melissa Arctic, as enchanted (and enchanting) a production as any theater lover could possibly wish for.

10703758_10152691133636768_396793428672418180_n Set in the real-life northern Minnesota town of Pine City, the scene of Wright’s previous The Pavilion and Orange Flower Water, Melissa Arctic opens with the stark drama of a husband’s crazed accusations of marital infidelity and closes with the transformative power of love and forgiveness, and if it does so every bit as naturally as winter turns to spring in the North Star State, it’s thanks in large part to director Scott Alan Smith’s deft direction of Wright’s contemporary Winter’s Tale and perhaps even more so to a production design that enhances the magic every step of the way.

Like the Shakespearean tragicomedy on which it is based, Melissa Arctic centers on a man whose burgeoning madness (or mental illness in today’s terms) convinces him of his wife’s adulterous affair with a mutual friend. In fact, so off-his-rocker is Pine City barber Leonard aka Lenny (Tom Musgrave) that despite the pleas and logic of his fellow coiffeur Carl (Brian M. Cole), he remains convinced that spouse Mina (Laurie Okin) has been cheating on him with visiting buddy Paul (Coronado Romero), and more delusionally still, that his and Mina’s infant daughter Melissa is the product of that illicit love.

As in Shakespeare’s four-century-old tale, Leonard’s green-eyed-monstrous accusations have disastrous consequences, though as with King Leontes before him, life offers Lenny a second act, a teenage daughter, and the possibility of redemption if only he can let go of his self-hatred and recriminations.

10445992_10152689404796768_8657358526836570009_n Also along for the Act One ride are middle-aged artist Cindy (Elizabeth Sampson), her devoted husband Lindy (Michael Dempsey), and well-meaning newbie pastor Mike (Danny Webber).

Herb farmer Alec (Joe Hart), his adoptive daughter Melissa (Hannah Mae Sturges), and Melissa’s teen sweetheart Ferris (Lockne O’Brien) show up for Act Two along with a trio of philosophic fishermen (Webber, Dempsey, and Samantha Salamoff).

Tying together Melissa Arctic’s two acts is Time, in the person of enchanting preteen Salamoff, who introduces the action with one of the several gorgeous songs Wright has written for this play-with-music and remains onstage throughout, a precociously wise observer of what fools these mortals be.

10177469_10152691122341768_2751471163989984246_n Despite playwright Wright’s considerable TV success (Six Feet Under, Lost, and his own Dirty Sexy Money) and a series of regionally produced theatrical hits (Recent Tragic Events, Lady, Grace, and the aforementioned Orange Flower Water and The Pavilion among them), Melissa Arctic has had at most a handful of professional productions since its 2004 Washington D.C. World Premiere, giving its 10th Anniversary West Coast Premiere at the Road event status.

Melissa Arctic’s cast of almost a dozen may well be one (financial) reason that more theaters haven’t jumped on the Wright bandwagon with this one. The play’s challenging mood shift between its first and second act may be another.

L.A.’s 99-seat-plan provides a solution to the first dilemma, and director Smith and his crackerjack design team (projection designer Kaitlyn Pietras in particular) solve the second, making for a production that touched this reviewer’s heart as few plays have in recent memory.

Pietras’s magical winter-to-spring animated projections (in combination with the winter forest created by scenic design whiz Desma Murphy) set Melissa Arctic’s first act in an almost enchanted snow-globe world, one whose magic eases the transition from pre-intermission winter’s chill to Act Two’s burst of springtime warmth in a way that a more realistic design would not.

The result is a production that sews together two very different acts about as seamlessly as imaginable, aided and abetted by yet another flawless Road Theatre Company cast.

10626829_10152695405901768_7806251633462826653_n Salamoff anchors the production with a performance of such wisdom and warmth that it’s hard to believe the budding child rock star is making her theatrical debut.

10659402_10152691117611768_2788847561849964405_n Okin makes for a radiant Mina, mesmerizing in the lyrical monolog Wright provides the wrongly accused wife, while Cole reveals as much of Carl, a character Wright just happens to have made deaf, with his graceful hands and expressive eyes as his castmates do with spoken words.

Romero’s well-intentioned Paul, Sampson and Dempsey’s salt-of-the-earth Cindy and Lindy, Webber’s kind-hearted if pastorally awkward Pastor Mike, and Hart’s big-hearted Alec are all wonderful creations.

CSUF grad Sturges and L.A. newcomer O’Brien are pitch-perfect as an adolescent couple whose puppy love may just be the real thing.

Most impressive of all is Musgrave’s gut-wrenching take on marital madness, the Road Theater company member digging so deep into a husband’s jealous if deluded rage that the redemption offered Lenny by Wright-via-Shakespeare proves all the more deeply affecting.

Cast vocals benefit from Kevin Saunders Hayes’ musical direction, with cast member Webber providing expert piano and occasionally guitar accompaniment throughout.

I cannot rave enough about Derrick McDaniel’s exquisite lighting design, Mary Jane Miller’s richly rustic costumes, David B. Marling’s evocative sound design, and Bettina Zacar’s bouquets of props, with additional kudos to Kathryn Sampson’s puppets and Matthew Glave’s fight choreography and movement.

Alexa Hodzig alternates with Salamoff in the role of Time. Understudies Jennice Butler, Jared Canfield, Taylor Coffman, Michael Covert, Susan Diol, Madeline Montgomery, Jesse Perez, Romero, and Kevin Shipp cover Melissa Arctic’s multiple roles.

Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson are executive producers. Kevin Shipp and Courtney Anne Buchan are producers. Darryl Johnson is assistant director and Michael Thomas-Visgar 2nd assistant director. Tj McNeil is assistant costume designer. Maurie Gonzales is stage manager.

It takes chutzpah to attempt a modern adaptation of a 400-year-old play and talent to pull it off. Craig Wright gets highest marks for both, as does North Hollywood’s illustrious Road Theatre for doing both Shakespeare and Wright right.

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The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 3, 2014
Photos: Deverill Weekes

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