Preparing the cast for ‘Same Time, Next Year’

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Impressively detailed and charmingly convincing, the magnificent bed-and-breakfast set for Sonoma Arts Live’s production of “Same Time, Next Year” features a prominently positioned king-size bed, adorned with fluffy pillows and a thick, gold comforter.

Less than a week before its Feb. 12 opening night, members of the design crew scamper up and down ladders, adjusting spotlights and arranging items on the set, which is a true pleasure to behold, nicely filling out the weeping, soaring stage of Sonoma Community Center’s Andrews Hall. That bed – now in the process of being properly lit – does look remarkably comfortable.

“It’d better be comfortable!” laughs director Joey Hoeber. “That bed gets a lot of action in this show!”

Best known for the 1978 film version starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, “Same Time, Next Year” started out as a stage comedy, running nearly four years on Broadway, where Burstyn and Charles Grodin created the roles of Doris and George, two strangers who meet in Mendocino in 1951 and begin an affair, despite the fact that he’s a married accountant from New Jersey and she’s a housewife from Oakland. For the next 24 four years, as the ‘50s fade into the’60s and then the ‘70s, Doris and George meet for one weekend each year, always returning to their original trysting spot. The play, as written by Bernard Slade – who created “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family” as it happens – is as much about the way George and Doris are gradually changed by the clandestine relationship (and the shifting times), as it is about a lovable pair of serial cheaters attempting to maintain a big secret for two-and-a-half decades.

“I’ve seen the movie, of course,” says actress Jennifer Peck, who’s just arrived for the rehearsal. Peck plays Doris, putting her own spin on a role that earned Burstyn an Oscar nomination. “The movie a classic,” she says, “and I’ve always loved it, but I never imagined I’d end up playing that character. Doris goes through so many changes, which are really fun to play. I especially enjoy her ‘flower child’ moment.”

“I’ve never seen the movie,” admits Hoeber as he waits for Cameron Stuckey, who plays George, to arrive. “But when I read the play, I saw how truly funny and moving it was. And the idea of opening ‘Same Time, Next Year’ on Valentine’s Day weekend! That could really work, if I could find the right two actors to play George and Doris.”

Hoeber immediately knew that he wanted Peck and Stuckey for the show. Both featured in last year’s production of the Neil Simon comedy “Jake’s Women,” and were instant audience favorites. According to Hoeber, the two actors demonstrate a remarkable amount of onstage chemistry.

As if on cue, Stuckey walks in, and he immediately falls into a playfully entertaining give-and-take with Peck, making jokes and launching into various cartoon voices and outrageous accents. “See, this is what I mean,” says Hoeber. “How could I not want to cast them together again, when this is what rehearsals are like?”

With casting complete, Hoeber then had to face the challenging technical aspects of staging a story that takes place in six increments spread over the course of 24 years, each new scene separated by five years. Not only do Doris and George grow older, their style of dress changes with the times. And then there’s the matter of how to keep the audience engaged during those costume changing, age-enhancing transitions.

“We decided to show the audience what has been happening out in the world,” says Hoeber. “In between scenes, we play music of the era, and we lower a movie screen and show video clips of what was happening during those years, as the world went through these incredible changes.”

“This is such a fun play, and a very funny play, but it does have its challenging parts,” says Stuckey, and he’s not just describing the costumes and make-up. “This is a love story that asks the audiences to consider what they believe about love, and monogamy, and a lot of other things. There are cultural taboos that these two people break, and there is a cost they pay for that, but there is also something really amazing that they gain.”

“Regardless of anything else, what these people are doing is taboo for a reason,” says Peck with a laugh. “If you approach this show with the right perspective, it’s a fantasy. And fantasy is all right, even if acting on those fantasies isn’t.”

The universality of the themes in the play is a major reason it remains so popular after 40 years, Hoeber says. Over the course of story, which straddles the Vietnam War, the feminist and peace movements, and other events of the ‘50s, ‘60s and’70s, Doris and George do a lot of lively talking, on and off that big comfortable bed.

“Even though it takes place from 1951 to 1975,” he says, “there are things they talk about that we are still hearing today. Conversations about the changing politics, and the cost of war, gender battles and sexuality, they are still going on today. It’s a very contemporary play, even if it sometimes seems a little nostalgic.”

“The costumes alone will take you back,” says Stuckey. “You’ll be sitting there thinking, ‘Wow! Did I ever wear something like that?’ And guess what? Yes, if you are old enough to remember the ‘60s and ‘70s, then you definitely did.”

“Same Time, Next Year” runs Thursday to Sunday, Feb. 12 to 28, at Sonoma Community Center. Thursday to Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $15 to $40, available online at www.sonomaartslive.org, or by calling the box office at 800-838-3006.

On opening night, locals Monica McKey and Jeane MacPherson will be singing a set of “Songs in the Key of Love” at 7 p.m. in the Rotary Lounge prior to the show.

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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