Timely Season for a Timeless Theatre
Bart Sullivan, 11-30-2018

Stephen Mule
Organizing a stage production is hard work, and wrangling cast and crew members can sometimes be difficult, but Akron’s Coach House Theatre managed to survive what could have been a disaster just before the opening show of its 91st season, Making God Laugh. Despite two last-minute casting changes, the production was nevertheless presented seamlessly—so seamlessly, in fact, that audiences did not even appear to know which changes were made. As the theatre’s artistic director, Sergio Iriarte, remarked, “It was fun each evening having our guests ask me after the show which were the roles that had to be replaced. That’s a testament to what a good job they did.”

Iriarte has been artistic director, along with Cassandra Capocci, since March of this year, having taken over after the previous Artistic Director left following disagreements with the Coach House’s parent organization, the Akron Woman’s City Club. “Things were clearly going in the wrong direction,” Iriarte explained. “They were ready to make a change and they asked if we would be interested in helping them with that. We thought that we might be able to assist them in getting the theatre back on the right track.” Filling the last two slots of the 90th season with shows that had minimal budget and rehearsal time with input from patrons and members of the Akron Woman’s City Club, Iriarte and Capocci led the Coach House into its 91st season, complete with a new generation of productions.

Established in 1928, the Coach House is named for the building where it resides—the coach house of the Grey Lodge. A mansion originally owned by several major Akron businesses, such as the B.F. Goodrich and Goodyear Tire and Rubber companies, the Grey Lodge was purchased in 1946 by the Akron Woman’s City Club, who converted the coach house into a theater two years later. The Coach House’s original stage group, the Little Theatre Players, performed in the Pythian Temple on South High Street, which served as the Akron Woman’s City Club’s clubhouse before it was moved downtown in 1926. Since then, the theatre’s goal has been to bring quality theatrical productions to Akron and all of Northeast Ohio.

Functionally and aesthetically, the Coach House Theatre helps preserve history. As part of the Akron Woman’s City Club, Iriarte explains that the group “maintains a historic campus, which serves as a facility for the philanthropic, educational, cultural, and social activities for the enrichment of its members and the community.” While appearing small on the outside, the actual 93-seat theater has a stage that is big enough to support Coach House productions. Although the stage was decorated as a small Midwestern living room for the season premiere, the stage appears capable of holding slightly larger productions without the makeshift walls. The building’s original use is obvious though, as the building’s original double-hung doors, where the horse stables once stood, are just to the left of the stage.

For the start of the 91st season, Iriarte and Capocci picked Making God Laugh, a play by Sean Grennan. The play shows the lives of a family in the Midwest over the course of four decades, as Ruthie and Bill hold holiday celebrations with their now-adult children. Their oldest son, Richard, goes from a semi-successful realtor to conspiracy theorist. His younger brother, Tom, takes on the life of a priest, going from “Father Tom” to retired priest and father of eight children. The main focus of the play, however, centers on Bill and Ruthie’s middle child, Maddie. Her mother’s constant criticism over Maddie’s weight, style, and career choices ultimately cause the family heartache when the two part ways over her sexuality.

“We were looking for a show to start the season that had a little something for everyone. Based on the feedback we’ve received opening weekend, I think we chose correctly,” Iriarte said. “Our audiences have responded to it very well. There have been plenty of laughs, but I’ve watched guests come out wiping tears from their eyes at the end.”

The sudden recasting of the roles of Maddie and Richard—one due to illness and the other because of a family emergency—went unnoticed. The actors were replaced by the show’s director, Cassandra Capocci, as Maddie, while Richard was played by Ken Jarosz, father of the actor who portrayed the character Tom, Nate Jarosz. However, the frantic behavior of Ruthie, played by Kathleen Farris, set the tone for how the cast and crew should have been acting. That being said, the show itself was extremely relatable, including issues families have fought over and agreed on for decades, while also incorporating historic and cultural events familiar to all audiences, such as the Enron bankruptcy, Y2K, and the housing market crash—all tied together by that one horrific holiday meal we all try to avoid.

Despite the cast’s seamless presentation, the show was not without flaws. Set during only one holiday per decade, the timing of events in the story was a bit confusing; events discussed in one scene were not brought again for what was supposed to 10 or 20 years, yet they were spoken of as though the previous scene had just happened in real time. Also, with each time jump the stage went black, but for a bizarre faint light meant to pull the audience’s focus from the stage crew changing decorations. This darkness passed along with a soundtrack of historical events played in the background—mostly football-related—supposedly showing how the world changed between the scenes. While this served as a unique tool to show the time jumps, the content of the audio was unrelated to the story but for the awkward sports conversations between Richard and Bill.

Continuing this season, Coach House’s next production will be Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on December 7th, followed by Charles Marowitz’s Stage Fright in January and Private Lives in April. In addition to the regular season, the theatre also holds a monthly fundraiser called Showtune Showoff, where audiences can bring their own sheet music or pick from the theatre’s collection, and sing karaoke-style to accompaniment. These shows cost $15 for adults or $10 for students, which pays the accompanist, as well as helping raise funding and promoting the theatre. The Coach House is looking to offer classes as well, reaching out to the community and getting more people involved as they did last summer with their successful Summer Youth Musical.

While Coach House Theatre is a unit of the Akron Woman’s City Club, it operates mainly through revenue from stage productions and donations. All casts and crews in shows and staff who help operate the facility are volunteers, aside from Iriarte and Capocci. Iriarte states that they are always looking for new volunteers, as well as new audiences. “Coach House Theatre has been putting on quality theatre in Akron for 91 years now, and we hope that everyone will come to check us out.”

More information about the Coach House Theater is available on their website, www.coachhousetheatre.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @AkronCoachHouse.

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