After what feels like the longest intermission ever, live theatre is back at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum! Since its founding in 1973, the theatre has provided entertainment, arts activism and educational opportunities to the greater Los Angeles area. While the boards of the stage have been replaced and Covid compliance policies are still in play, the theatre radiates a feeling of welcoming and familiarity to new and returning audience members. The excitement of being back together under the oaks is infectious and the joy of the audience and actors is a beautiful thing to witness.
The 2021 season is sponsored by the S. Mark Taper Foundation and features condensed productions of Julius Caesar, told from the perspective of the soothsayer; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring new original music; and the world premiere of John Guerra’s The Last Best Small Town.
Under the ever brilliant direction of Ellen Geer, The Last, Best Small Town has come to life on the Theatricum stage. Featuring a cast of eight immensely talented actors, The Last Best Small Town focuses on two families, one Latinx and the other white, living in Fillmore, California, in the early 2000s. Told by The Playwright (Leandro Cano*) the play spans the course of four years.
Benny (Richard Azurdia) and Della (Katia Gomez) Gonzales work hard to provide an opportunity-filled future beyond Fillmore for their son Elliot (Kelvin Morales). Elliot, a graduating senior and valedictorian of the Fillmore High School class of 2005, struggles with the expectations placed on him and the idea of letting his parents down. To his parents, Eli is the embodiment of the “American Dream” and the accomplishment they are the most proud of.
Next door, Hank (Christopher Wallinger) Miller, the editor of the Fillmore Gazette, is concerned with providing for his family and keeping his grass green. His bubbly wife Willow (Christine Breihan) bounces between fitness classes, making sure her precious family maintains their image and worrying about her son Marcus who is about to join the military. Their younger daughter, Maya (Jordan Tyler Kessler), is finishing her junior year of high school and excited to get away from her family and out of Fillmore.
Rounding out the story is Chuy (Miguel Perez), Elliot’s grandfather, who provides advice, humor and, as any good grandfather should, passes down family stories.
Through the course of the play, Elliot and Maya come of age and make their way out into the world. We see how they differ from their parents and watch them fall in love, deal with loss and adapt to the inevitable changes in their lives.
The beauty of Guerra’s play is that he has created a piece that anyone, no matter their race, age or gender, can find something to relate to. He gives voice to a way of life that isn’t usually represented in the media, despite the numerous Americans who have, and will continue to, live it. His characters are dynamic, funny and, most importantly, authentically human. Each character grapples with their connection to identity and the roles they’ve been given by society, while drawing you in and leaving you deeply invested in the story.
I encourage everyone to go see The Last, Best, Small Town. Bring a friend or family member. Shows like this one spark conversation and are meant to be talked about after. John Guerra and Ellen Geer have created a fantastic show that opens your heart and perfectly blends humor, hope and the experiences that make us human.