Oak Harbor performers are finally taking the stage again this weekend as the Whidbey Playhouse opens for the first time since March of last year.
The Playhouse’s first show of the long-awaited season will be “Tea for Three,” a portrait of three former U.S. first ladies. By offering a glimpse into the presidential wives’ lives, hopes and fears, the show touches on themes that retain relevance in the modern sociopolitical landscape.
The play follows an untraditional format. Rather than seeing multiple actors interact onstage as the plot progresses, audience members will see only one performer at a time as each first lady in turn delivers a monologue about her life, both before and during her husband’s presidency.
“I think that audiences are going to appreciate that this is not intimidating for your first show post-pandemic,” said Sarah Gallella, who plays Betty Ford, wife of former president Gerald Ford and first lady from 1974 to 1977.
Besides being straightforward in concept, the play also has a small cast, which will be a point of comfort for audience members who have grown unaccustomed to being in large crowds during the past year and a half.
“It’s one lone actor on the stage, sharing this story,” agreed actor Jill Jackson, as opposed to a “large cast projecting at you.”
Jackson portrays Pat Nixon, first lady from 1969-1974 and wife of former president Richard Nixon. She said she learned of several “unique similarities” between herself and her character while researching for the show, including the fact that their birthdays are only one day apart.
Gallella and Erin Tombaugh, who plays Lady Bird Johnson, also said they learned a great deal about their characters over the course of the rehearsals.
Tombaugh, the youngest cast member, hadn’t been familiar with Johnson or either of the other first ladies before auditioning for the show. The more she learned about the three featured women, the more she discovered what an important function the first lady performs in America, despite being more of a behind-the-scenes player.
“The overlap of her (Johnson’s) role in the presidency has been really interesting for me to learn about,” Tombaugh said.
“We don’t think about the isolation that first ladies go through,” Jackson added.
Though the script of “Tea for Three” takes place in the 1960s and 70s, audiences will find many of the show’s themes have a familiar ring to them. The play handles topics such as political division, women’s rights and the ever-present burden of public perception.
“This show in particular is a great way to open conversations with people,” Gallella said.
Jackson said the show also reminds Americans to learn from past leaders’ mistakes.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we learned from the past enough,” she said. “We’re repeating things that we should not be repeating, because somebody already made the mistakes, and we really need to open our eyes and move forward.”
All three cast members have past theater experience, but this play’s unique format presented an interesting challenge for the women.
Tombaugh said that despite acting alone onstage, the experience of diving deeply into the character of Lady Bird Johnson was rewarding for her as a performer. Though none of the three cast members appear onstage together — except when they are taking their bows — they all said they still play off the dynamic of the other two to give the show a cohesive feeling.
The women practiced separately for the first few weeks of rehearsals, Tombaugh remembered, but once they came together, the group started to work as one unit.
“We’re doing our own portrayal, but helping it to be a smooth transition from one to the next, so that we are still part of the same show,” she said.
“Tea for Three” is directed by Eric George. It runs every weekend from Sept. 17-Oct. 3. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday shows begin at 2:30 p.m. Online viewing options are available Sept. 18, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. Tickets can be purchased at www.whidbeyplayhouse.com/shows.
“Tea for Three” is the first show of an exciting season the Playhouse has planned for its return. Auditions for the next show, “Music Theater International’s All Together Now!” will take place this weekend from 1-4 p.m. Sept. 18 and 19 at 730 Southeast Midway Boulevard. The conglomeration of songs from a variety of musicals will run for one weekend in November.
Auditions for “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “The Taming,” and “Charley’s Aunt” will take place in December, February 2022 and April 2022, respectively.