Circa ’21 Reopens With Comedy That’s “Touching Without Touching”
The staggering Covid-19 pandemic has forced most of us to lean on friends and alcohol to cope, and though we can’t (or shouldn’t) physically hug, the return of Circa ‘21’s mainstage aims to provide an emotionally comforting embrace.
The historic dinner theater (1828 3rd Ave. Rock Island) opens its first main production Wednesday since theaters everywhere closed in mid-March, with the Quad-City premiere of “The Savannah Sipping Society.”
Running Sept. 9 through Nov. 7, this new hilarious and heartwarming comedy is written by the team of Jones Hope Wooten, the authors of such previous Circa ’21 hits as “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Mama Won’t Fly” and is being presented by a cast of professional actors.
After a hot yoga class brings four “women of a certain age” together at the start of “Savannah Sipping Society,” the ladies decide their sassy humor and Southern charms are better suited for solving life’s problems over cocktails. Over the course of six months and many misadventures, these women successfully bond and find the confidence to reclaim the enthusiasm for life they’ve all but lost over the years.
Together, they discover lasting friendships and a renewed determination to live in the moment and most importantly, they realize it’s never too late to make new friends.
Written by the popular playwriting team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – whose other comedies performed in the area have included “Dearly Beloved,” “The Red Velvet Cake War,” “Always a Bridesmaid,” and “Doublewide, Texas” the joyous and touching “Savannah Sipping Society” raises a glass to intoxicating friendships and the importance of treasuring life’s moments.
This week’s premiere is especially meaningful for Circa veterans Shelley Walljasper and Kim Kurtenbach. They’re among the quartet of returning talents all familiar to Circa audiences — Sarah Hayes (“Annie,” “Elf: The Musical”); Sherry Konjura (“Nana’s Naughty Knickers,” “Shear Madness”); Kim Kurtenbach (“Smoke on the Mountain,” “The Sound of Music”) and Shelley Walljasper (“Kinky Boots,” “Southern Crossroads”).
Walljasper – who with her husband Tom — has appeared on the dinner theater stage many times, and planned to have role in two canceled musicals earlier this year, “Saturday Night Fever” and “Beauty and the Beast.” She was to play Tony Manero’s mom in the former (with Tom as her husband) and Mrs. Potts in the latter.
“It’s been very hard,” Shelley said recently. “I re-dyed my hair to be Italian (in “Fever”). Then ‘Beauty and Beast’ got canceled, ‘Grace for President’ got canceled, ‘Seussical’ got canceled, and I was involved in them all. I was Mrs. Potts in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ I was really looking forward to that. Someday maybe…That’s why it feels so good to come back. Coming back, it’s like those feelings — they feel good to feel those.”
Walljasper has gone back to singing at her church, St. Pius in Rock Island, where everyone in the congregation is masked and six feet apart. They’ve had in-person services since July, and she also loves seeing her grandkids, ages 2 and a half and 11 months.
“We’ve been trying to be really safe; our circles are really small,” she said. “I’ve been lucky, Denny has cast me as a character actress.”
For the new play, they’ve been rehearsing in masks, all six feet apart on stage.
“We’ve incorporated masks into the show, as characters get more familiar with each other, we’re outside. We’re on this porch,” Walljasper said. “That’s been a challenge, dealing with that, because doing it with a mask on, we’re making it work, we’re experimenting with the sound. I really like the fact we’re not ignoring Covid is going on. Hopefully, the audience will relate to that.”
In rehearsals, they have “cup choreography,” so each actress has a different color tape on the glass to use, and the dishes are washed after every time they’re used. The characters, atypically, also can’t physically touch one another in the play.
“Obviously storytelling is better with touching, but for what the times are, for what we have to follow, the guidelines, we’re making it happen,” Walljasper said. “There’s an excitement about that.”
She has previously acted in Jones Hope Wooten’s” Dixie Swim Club” and “Always a Bridesmaid,” and loves their humor and joy.
“They’re well written,” Walljasper said, noting her role is a woman who’d “you’d like to be with you in a bar fight. She’s recently divorced, she’s really bitter about that. She’s a little bit of a loudmouth, says what’s on her mind.
“She’s very loving — all these women have gone through something, and they’re basically on their own,” she said. “They find each other and work through it together. It’s so touching without touching. These writers they find ways through it, with someone to support you and give you confidence.”
To accommodate characters wearing masks, they didn’t change lines, but they do ad-lib with the masks. “My character is from Texas, and I decided my character is the one who doesn’t want to wear the mask,” Walljasper said. “I don’t like the mask, people would identify with that. We’re all like that.”
“The things I found the most challenging, as an actor with this show, about the friendship of these four women, you want to be like, touch or hug, things you normally do with friends,” Kurtenbach said. “And you have to stifle your instincts on stage, like you do in life.”
Her last Circa stage role was “The Sound of Music” in 2015, as Elsa the baroness, which was special since that was the first acting after her ovarian cancer treatment.
“I hadn’t done another show there. It’s a lot of fun to be back on stage,” Kurtenbach (a frequent director also of Circa children’s shows) said, noting this year is also her 30th anniversary with Circa, as her first show (at 19) was in “Steel Magnolias,” another Southern comedy with an all-female cast.
“When I came back after my cancer journey, it was more of a personal thing, me thinking I was getting back to me,” she said. “This is a bigger picture — yes of course, I’m thrilled to be back on stage, also supporting the arts, not letting the challenge happening to us destroy the world of theater.
“We need it right now,” she said. “We need an escape, we need to laugh. I feel very strongly, as Circa ‘21 as a business, what they’ve given community over 44 years, is a tremendous gift.”
Of Circa owner/producer Dennis Hitchcock, Kurtenbach said: “Keeping that strong, supporting Denny, is so important to me. The thing with Denny, he has said from the beginning, we are not going to close our doors. We will get through this. Hey, it’s going to be different; it may not be the typical Circa experience. Well, count me in.”
Even though the story faces some hard truths, “Anytime you get four women together and cocktails, there’s always going to be some hilarity that ensues,” she added. “When reading the script, it kind of reminded me of a ‘Golden Girls’ episode, or ‘Designing Women.’ You’ve got a lot of very comical moments, touching dramatic moments.
“Shelley Walljasper is a laugh riot,” Kurtenbach said. “Her character is a hoot. My character is more the straight man. She’s got her quirks, the comedy comes out. They’re four different women, different personalities, all trying to forge a friendship in the midst of this crisis.”
The play is happening during the midst of this real-life crisis of Covid, and director Warner Crocker has “really done a great job of kind of lightly incorporating the Covid situation, without making the story about Covid,” Kurtenbach said. “There are touches of it people will relate to; it’s funny having a man directing a story about women. Warner has a great sense of the sentimentality, and the touching moments. He’s doing a fantastic job.”
Crocker also is a Circa favorite, whose other Rock Island productions have included “Shear Madness,” “Mama Won’t Fly,” “Southern Crossroads” and the musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Due to the Phase 4 rules of Restore Illinois, capacity for each performance is limited to only 50 people in the 330-seat venue. Plated dinners will be served in lieu of the traditional buffet. For the safety of guests and staff members, temperatures will be taken when patrons arrive and face masks must be worn to enter the theater, when interacting with the staff and whenever guests are away from their tables.
It will be hard also performing before a reduced audience, Walljasper said.
“There’s an energy you get off an audience, especially a comedy,” she said. “Getting that feedback, I’ve always been this way. But I do the show, I just like being up there. I don’t remember which of my college professors said, you only need one audience member out there to tell a story. So with 50 people in the audience, I don’t mind.”
“We’ll find out; we haven’t really had an audience,” Kurtenbach added. “It’s hard with a comedy, the audience plays such a crucial role in any comedy. You really feed off what the audience is giving you.
“I think this is challenging, only 50 people and the 50 people are spread out,” she said. “We’re hoping the audience will feel free, even though socially distant, feel free to enjoy themselves, go with us on this journey.”
“The Savannah Sipping Society” will be presented at 7:45 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays, at 5:45 Sundays, with Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $55.05 for the evening productions and $48.23 for the matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office at 309-786-7733, ext. 2. Online reservations are not available at the present time, though more information on all venue events and procedures is available at Circa21.com.