With a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and kids, a successful business, and a happy suburban lifestyle, Walter Wells is living the American Dream.
But the problem with dreams is that you eventually wake up.
The sudden collapse of Walter’s perfect life – and the unlikely bonds of friendship that help him cope with devastating loss – are the subject of Upstage Napa Valley’s production of Julie Marie Myatt’s “The Happy Ones,” premiering Saturday, Oct. 5, at Grace Episcopal Church in St. Helena.
It’s a story that begins in tragedy but has a positive trajectory, said director Sharie Renault.
“It’s about finding a way to come back, a way to live again,” Renault said.
The comedy/drama is set in the mid-‘70s, when the wounds of the Vietnam War are still raw. That’s especially true for the pivotal character of Bao, a Vietnamese doctor who has recently come to America searching for a better life.
Bao is played by Tony Banthutham, a native of Thailand, in his first acting role.
The first time he came to rehearsal, “I didn’t know what to do. I was just saying words,” he said. Since then he’s learned to delve into the emotions behind the dialogue, especially Bao’s deep despondency and need for human connection.
“Bao wants to make his life worth living, but he has nothing,” Banthutham said.
Walter is played by Gabriel Frey, who’s been acting for about 15 years and working with Upstage Napa Valley since 2014. With Walter on set for 24 out of 25 scenes, this has been his toughest production in technical terms.
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At a recent rehearsal the cast had most of the dialogue down and was just working out logistical details like costume changes and prop placement. For example, the play has a lot of food being shuffled around from scene to scene, and it wouldn’t do to still have banana bread on the table when the steak and potatoes are being served in a later scene.
“In theater it’s all these little aspects that need to come together – the acting, the props, the pacing,” Frey said.
The supporting characters are Gary, a well-meaning but dissipated Unitarian minister played by Fred Ireland, and Mary-Ellen, a vivacious divorcee played by Shannon Emery. The comic pair do their best to cheer up their friend Walter without understanding that he needs time to grieve.
Ireland said he can relate to the subject matter for several reasons. He was serving in the Marine Corps when Saigon fell, he suffered a personal tragedy similar to the one in the play, and at one point he thought about going into the ministry – although he never dreamed of being the sort of minister Gary is.
“It’s an emotional play for me,” Ireland said. “Whatever you’re going through, you have to realize that somebody else is having an even worse time than you are.”
Emery said the 1970s were a difficult time for divorced women like Mary-Ellen.
“She didn’t want to stay married to a jerk,” Emery said. “But society still sees her as branded. She’s still trying to find a path back to what society deems respectful.”
Jan Bradley stage-manages the production, with Ben Casas and Alan Schneider running sound and lights.
Renault and the cast will discuss the play with the audience following each performance.