By Jeff Ritter
York, Pa., is in Amish country, and not the kind of place one would expect to find Shakespearean actors embroiled in an elaborate scheme to swindle a small-town American girl out of her inheritance, even though the lady with all the dough hasn’t died yet.
For American playwright and York native Ken Ludwig, it’s the perfect place to concoct this absurd caper. Act Two Theatre’s production will rob you of a couple of hours but reward you with some great lines and hilarious scenes.
Set in 1958, classically trained thespians Leo Clark (Michael Bouchard) and Jack Gable (Zach Venturella) present a truncated revue of Shakespearean vignettes and promptly get run out of town—literally on the rails—by an unappreciative Moose Lodge.
On the train and nearly destitute, Leo spots a newspaper article about an ailing woman in York who has not been able to locate her next-of-kin in England, “Max” and “Steve.” Realizing that these long-lost nephews probably haven’t seen their doddering old auntie in years, they decide to pose as the European side of the family to grab a sizeable share of the inheritance. After they arrive, they soon discover that Max and Steve are merely nicknames — for Maxine and Stephanie.
Now in drag, Clark and Gable appear to be getting in the good graces of ailing but ornery Florence (Linda Daly). However, Minister Duncan (Mark Killmer), who is betrothed to Meg (Hannah Warntjes), is suspicious. Meg is perfectly willing to share the inheritance with her long-lost cousins.
Audrey (Jordyn Wofford), who arrived back in town to help take care of Florence, seems none the wiser as the ruse continues. Doc (Jesse Russell) and his son Butch (Joshua Thomas Ignatius Towers) drift in and out regularly to check on the old lady, who seems to be rejuvenated with the return of her lost family.
The scheme is foolproof, of course, except that Clark has fallen hard for pretty Meg and Gable has been ensnared by ditzy yet charming Audrey. To paraphrase the Bard, “To steal their money, or to steal their hearts? That is the question!” The answer is arrived at as hilarity and tension rise throughout the performance.
The first act was a tad slow, owing to a hefty amount of back story and exposition. It was still funny though, particularly when Meg admits to sleeping in the buff, a tawdry visual for the late 1950s.
Hannah Warntjes projects an innocent quality that makes that scene feel even more risqué than it was. She excelled throughout — warm, funny, and vivacious. Her physical acting drew a lot of appreciative laughs. She’s still a student, but I predict Warntjes could have quite a future as a leading lady in this ever-growing theatre town.
The second act is where the humor really starts to shine. As the zany misadventure starts to unravel, the laughs kept growing. This is where Bouchard and Venturella really rose to the occasion. Bouchard injected Clark with a kind of ruthless cunning tempered by his love for Meg.
Venturella excelled in physical comedy, particularly when his “Stephanie” was a mute. Watching them on stage was a pleasure, especially when they let their guard down and sat unladylike as they complained about how horrible wearing a brassiere was.
Wofford was an attention-grabber every time she was on stage. While Audrey is a smaller role on paper, she brought her character to life in a big way. It might be going a wee bit too far to call Wofford a scene-stealer, but she was very much a crowd-pleaser whenever she was in the limelight.
Mark Killmer, who did a fine job in O’Fallon Theatre Works’ “Peter and the Starcatcher,” played Duncan as not quite a villain, but not an altogether ideal husband for the younger Meg. His character was probably the most complex, and he deserves a lot of praise for pulling it off so capably. At times, you almost want to boo him but he’s the wronged party—and Killmer expertly accomplishes a delicate balance between smug and pitiable.
Director Paul James guides this semi-false family on a lovely set designed by Jeff David. Jean Heckmann’s costume designs were simple yet elegant and evocative of the period. The entire production team did a top-notch job.
Along with the strong cast, Act Two’s production of “Leading Ladies” made the relatively small stage at the Performing Arts Theatre in the St. Peters City Hall Cultural Arts Centre feel like a condensed version of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre.
As the saying goes, big things come in small packages, and there are many big laughs to be had at “Leading Ladies.”
With a seating capacity of around 300, get your seats early and catch one of the remaining performances on May 3, 4, and 6. See www.acttwotheatre.com for more information on “Leading Ladies” tickets and the rest of their 25th season lineup.
Photo: Zach Venturella and Jordyn Wofford in a scene from “Leading Ladies.”