It should come as no surprise that Tess Hightower is drawn to comedy.
She was married to comic actor Dick Gautier. He encouraged Hightower, a psychologist and life coach, to act and sing whenever opportunities presented themselves.
“He knew I loved it,” Hightower said.
Since moving to Oak Harbor recently, Hightower has literally acted out one of her lifelong passions.
She’s become a familiar face onstage at the Whidbey Playhouse since last fall, tackling comedic and singing roles in community theater.
This week, she’ll take on her largest role yet, playing a character who’s in a world of her own in the comedy “37 Postcards,” which opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Hightower plays Evelyn Sutton, a mother who doesn’t recognize how much her life has tilted off-kilter since the death of her son eight years earlier.
She and her husband, Stanford P. Sutton, played by Kevin Wm. Meyer, both carry on an odd life of denial in the weirdest fashion. It isn’t brought to light until their son Avery, played by Andy Russell, returns to his childhood home in Connecticut with his fiance, played by Katie McClimans, after many years away.
Avery, whose twin brother had passed, can hardly recognize the place where he grew up.
And not just the house, which literally is sinking. He comes back to see the family dog gone wild, his grandmother (played by Tallie Boyer) still among the living and his aunt (Lisa Judd) earning a good side income charging for phone sex.
“It’s like when you go away from your family home and come back many years later and go, ‘It’s smaller than I remembered,’” Russell said. “Well, it’s crazier than you remembered.”
Laughter is good medicine for Hightower at this time in her life.
In January, her husband died at the age of 85 at an assisted living facility in Arcadia, Calif., following a lengthy illness.
Hightower was married to Gautier for 13 years. He was a prolific television actor, appearing in numerous sitcoms, series and game shows over a 50-year acting career. He was best known for his role as “Hymie the Robot” in the popular TV sitcom, “Get Smart,” and was nominated for a Tony award for the Elvis Presley-style rock-and-roll singer he played in the 1960 Broadway hit that launched his career, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Long before she met Gautier, Hightower longed to be onstage.
Her major in college was drama until she realized she might have trouble earning a living and switched to psychology and eventually earned her doctorate degree.
She became a celebrity in her profession in Los Angeles, hosting her own radio show, and had her own brush with TV fame, appearing as a relationships coach in the 2003 ABC reality TV series, “The Last Resort.”
“I think that’s why I married an actor,” Hightower said. “I’ve always been attracted to it.”
Hightower, 68, considers acting in comedies as sort of a tribute to her late husband.
She didn’t know much about her part or even the comedy “37 Postcards” when she was cast in February — unaware of the overtones of grief and loss that crossed over between the play and her own personal life.
When her character comes out of her daze and starts shedding the denial she had felt over the loss of her son, Hightower said the emotions start to feel very real.
“At almost 69, I’ve learned that grief has its own look and sound,” she said.
There is comfort around her new playhouse family and a tight cast of seven, the smallest director Rusty Hendrix can remember working with.
“It’s a very sweet cast,” Hendrix said.
“We’ve almost become part of a family,” Russell said.
“We have become a functional dysfunctional family,” Meyer added with a grin.
“We put the fun into function,” Boyer chimed in.
Hendrix calls “37 Postcards” a coming of age story for adults.
Meyer was drawn to the comedy in how it deals with serious subjects.
“We all in various degrees deal with denial of things,” Meyer said. “I can put off going to the dentist because it doesn’t hurt that bad. Or whether someone is deathly ill or someone is lost. We all have ways of dealing with denial. This show is the crux of that.”
The cast even includes two first-timers to the stage — Boyer and Rudy, Hightower’s soft-coated Wheaten Terrier. Rudy was a birthday gift to Hightower from Gautier 13 years ago.
“He’s a great dog,” Judd said.
“He takes direction better than we do,” Meyer joked.
n “37 Postcards,” a Michael McKeever comedy, plays April 14-30. Tickets are $18. Go to www.whidbey playhouse.com or call 360-679-2237.
(Story originally published Tuesday, April 11, 2017)