Director Dennis Smith says he was drawn to "Wild Oats," his swan song after 25 years as theater professor at Southern Oregon University, because of the way it pokes fun at theater and actors.
"The play really appeals to a spirit of fun and never takes itself too seriously," he says on the Department of Theatre Arts' Facebook page. "... It's healthy to occasionally pop our own pretensions."
This production of "Wild Oats," which opened Thursday at SOU's Center Stage Theatre, gives ample proof of Smith's directorial dexterity and command of comedy.
The 1791 play by Irish dramatist John O'Keeffe centers in part on Jack Rover (Tim Homsley), a fully fledged thespian with a roguish bearing, adventurous spirit and gentle nature who falls in love with Lady Amaranth, a beautiful, kind woman but wealthy and far above Rover's status. Homsley is quite the charmer, impressing with his dash and youthful fervor and way with words.
Sir George Thunder (Justin Samuel Cowan), a retired naval captain, is guilty of sewing his own wild oats with a mock marriage (and he doesn't know the half of it). He's now on the warpath of three deserters from the Royal Navy. What ruffians they turn out to be. His former boatswain John Dory (David Demuth), now his valet-de-chambre, irritates Sir George by dredging up the past.
The locale of the play is the county of Hampshire and in particular the environs of Portsmouth, an old port and naval base. Sir George becomes aware that the owner of the estate is actually Lady Amaranth (Danielle Chaves), his niece. He figures she would be the perfect match for his son Harry (Blaine Johnston), who is attending the Naval Academy in Portsmouth. Except that Harry, bitten by the acting bug, has taken off to join a company of traveling players and becomes good friends with Rover.
Sir George takes off himself, too, determined to bring Harry to Lady Amaranth "by the bowsprit."
Suffice it to say that the audience becomes party to romantic intrigue, the reconciliation of sons with estranged fathers, and the last-minute discovery of long-lost children.
Isaac Kosydar as Ephraim Smooth, Amaranth's steward who has his own designs on her, is the lecher par excellence; Jacob Samuel Feller as Banks, a cottager on the estate, has a very expressive face that brings to mind Oliver Hardy; Blaine Johnston as Harry Thunder is handsome and winning; and Justin Samuel Cowan as Sir George is never funnier than when he is frustrated, which is 90 percent of the time. As Lady Amaranth, Danielle Chaves is pretty, poised and purposeful.
Noel Koran, director of SOU's Department of Performing Arts, proudly observes that the student performers, designers and technicians "have all risen and are still rising to the occasion."
Daniel Haskett's set design is a case in point, evoking an 18th century theater in London with a row of footlights, ceremoniously lit up at the start of the play. Then there is Katherine Nowacki's costume design. Her period elegance enchants the eye, but she is just as capable at creating ludicrous attire when needed.
John O'Keeffe ends his play with Rover's roundup a la Shakespeare:
"To merit friends so good, so sweet a wife
The tender husband be my part for life
My wild oats sown, let candid thespian laws
Decree that glorious harvest — your applause."
Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, May 20-23, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 22, and Sunday, May 23.
Robert Miller is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.