ELIJAH

Strangers find themselves stuck inside a rural TGI Friday’s as a hurricane rages not far from where a serial killer is about to be put to death in Judith Leora’s Elijah, 72 minutes of drama, comedy, mystery, suspense, and hot-button issues that kept me on the edge of my Victory Theatre seat from start to finish.

Hurricane Elijah has hit southeast Texas, and with surrounding highways closed, the entire dining room of this small-town TGIF’s is jam-packed with travelers stranded by the storm, news that doesn’t sit well with teenage server Ashley (Mackenzie Rickaby), who can’t for the life of her figure why her restaurant manager aunt Lori (Kathleen Bailey) hasn’t just shut things up let the two of them head on home.

It doesn’t take long for hungry new arrivals like 20something couple Dawn (Molly Gray) and Greg (Jordan Wall) to start filling the restaurant’s hitherto unoccupied back room, though why Dawn has chosen this part of Texas for a June vacation smack dab in the middle of hurricane season remains as unfathomable to Greg as her insistence that they get back on the seriously flooded road asap.

Gaydar-pinging out-of-town lawyer Tim (Jesse Merrill) shows up next, in the area to protest tonight’s execution, the mention of which seems to interest Dawn rather more than her “only vacationing” claim would suggest.

Completing Elijah’s cast of marooned back-room characters is Patience (Elle Vernee), whose “Thank you, Jesus!” immediately upon arrival suggests a religious fervor that will either make her and Tim anti-death penalty allies or die-hard adversaries. (I’ll give you one guess as to which side of the capital punishment divide the Bible thumper is on.)

Dramatic stakes are raised considerably when Dawn’s connection to the about-to-be-executed killer is revealed and Leora’s play acquires new urgency as the minutes tick by towards his imminent death by lethal injection.

Despite a similar premise (poles-apart strangers finding themselves in the same place at the same time) to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and at least six plays I’ve reviewed over the past five years, Elijah avoids a predictable “We’re more alike than we would ever have known” resolution.

Rather, this West Coast Premiere is more about “What would I do?” or “How would I feel?” or “Whose side would I be on?” and if Elijah’s characters do make baby steps towards mutual understanding, a gasp-evoking “There need to be consequences” suggests that each still has lessons to learn.

On the comedy front, Dawn and Greg’s snappy patter and Lori and Ashley’s generation-gap squabbling could easily make them a quartet of engaging sitcom leads, and while some of Tim and Patience’s interactions on issues of capital punishment and LGBTQ rights sound rather a bit too much like talking points from procon.org, it’s easy to imagine TV viewers turning in weekly for their brand of political-opposites friction as well.

That Tim’s laughter-provoking inability to get even a cup of tea served at his table serves as a preamble to Elijah’s most emotionally wrenching scene is just one of multiple instances where Leora manages to move seamlessly from comedy to drama and back, and with director Maria Gobetti evoking pitch-perfect performances from all concerned, the Victory Theatre proves itself as dynamic and relevant as ever in its 40th season.

Gray and Wall display light comedic skills and matching dramatic chops when things get dark, a terrific Merrill suggests but never overplays gay Tim’s prickly quirks, Vernee proves herself adept at revealing occasional bits of compassion beneath Patience’s impatience with Those Who Dare Defy God, Bailey imbues Lori with folksy warmth and small-town grit, and gifted 18-year-old Rickaby makes for a heartbreakingly real Ashley.

A crackerjack design team–Evan Bartoletti (sets), Carol Doehring (lighting), Lauri Fitzsimmons (costumes and props), and Christopher “CB” Brown (sound)–create an absolutely authentic hurricane-surrounded TGI Friday’s.

Elijah’s 2nd Company (Melanie Abrams, Quentin Boyer, Rachel E. Crane, Ashley Currie, and Jerry Hernandez, directed by Herb Hall) have Wednesday-Thursday performances set for the first two weeks in December, one of which I hope to catch.

Elijah is produced by Tom Ormeny, Gobetti, and Gabriel Ormenyi. Crystal Hui is stage manager and Adihi Torres Alvarado and Adrianna Buenviaje are assistant stage managers. Donna Preacher-Hall is 2nd Company assistant director.

In reviewing Judith Leora’s Showpony last year, I wrote “It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It more than merits a visit to the Victory.” Let me simply say ditto for Elijah.

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The Victory Theatre Center, 3326 West Victory Blvd., Burbank. Through December 22. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:0. Sundays at 4:00 Reservations: 818 841-5421
www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org

–Steven Stanley
November 3, 2019
Photos: Tim Sullens

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