BWW Interview: Actress Sandy Bainum and Director Brandon Baer Talk BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW
Be a Good Little Widow starts previews as a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre May 18. Actress Sandy Bainum, who has delighted audiences for several years in both musicals and plays in Los Angeles and her friend, director Brandon Baer recently sat down to talk about the play and what makes it tick as a dark comedy.
Tell our readers about Be a Good Little Widow. With a title like that, it must be hysterical.
Sandy: Well, it is a comedy, but hysterical is probably not the adjective I would use to describe it. In the author Bekah Brunstetter's own words, she calls it a melon (melancholy) comedy. It is a sad comedy, but it has levity and lightness...and real truth of sadness, as it encompasses a full gammit of emotions.
Brandon: It's really accurate because the story is about a 26-year old woman named Melody who is recently married and very suddenly her husband Craig, a lawyer, dies in a plane crash. The piece is about the direct aftermath of that and the relationship that exists between her and her mother-in-law who was also widowed at a young age. She tries to import her wisdom onto this younger woman.
Is she dictatorial, obnoxious?
Sandy: Yes. Hope is totally New England. She's by the book. There are rules and regulations, and Craig was her only child. Her huband died about 16 years prior, so it was Craig and his mother against the world, basically.
Talk about the writer and her viewpoint. Is she participating in the mounting of this production?
Brandon: Bekah is a fantastic playwright who has worked in New York and LA for a number of years. She is currently writing on the television show "This Is Us". Thematically there are actually a lot of similarities to the show itself. They are both about family and coping with these incredibly extreme circumstances, but they're really normal folks. In the same way that "This Is Us" plays with time flashing back and exploring different periods of these characters' lives and how they all compound in order to create the people they are today, that's very much what she does with Be a Good Little Widow. We see them coping with this horrendous tragedy but we also get glimpses into their lives from the past, so we see how they have landed where they are today. She's consistent as a writer and is able to write about people in a very relatable, grounded way that is both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time. She never quite waits for the joke, which is what I connected to when I read her writing. Sure there's a time and place for a sitcom, but theatrically in my opinion there's nothing better than seeing real people that have the humor and charm of life. As far as this production is concerned, she's been tremendously supportive and will be participating in a talkback after one of the performances.
She hasn't been sitting in on rehearsals?
Sandy: No. This play has been done. It hasn't been done in LA for five or six years, and she was very excited to learn through contacts that we are mounting it. This is probably one of the bigger productions that's been done of it. It's a one-act, four-hander.
Tell us about your other cast members and your creative team.
We have a wonderful producer Christopher Sepulveda who is incredibly accomplished. He's been involved with Spring Awakening here and on Broadway and has also been involved in An American in Paris. He's a man about town, a rock. Brandon and I worked together last year at the Lyric Hyperion in a production of Barefoot in the Park. Adrienne Visnic who's playing Melody played Corie in that. We have a true love for each other. I've been trying to fix her up with my children for years. When we did Barefoot, we found the magic between Brandon, Adrienne and me. This play reminds me a little of Barefoot in the Park marrying "This Is Us". There's some irony and humor at the beginning of this play similar to Neil Simon's. It seems familiar in a way. I'm playing a mother-in-law this time. I'm the old broad, the grande dame. Sterling Knight is playing my son Craig. He's charming, a wonderful human being. The other young man is Khylin Rhambo. This is his very first play. He's a TV actor and has a real interesting energy that is just perfect for the character he's playing. He'a a naturally grounded, honest actor.
Having chemistry at the beginning is a sure sign of a successful production.
Brandon and I decided we were cut from the same cloth. We think the same thing at the same moment. (she laughs)
Brandon, it doesn't sound like you have too many challenges at this point!
Brandon: There are always challenges. I am typically of the mindset where if you are diligent and do your homework and surround yourself with the best people possible, and you have a sense of the story you need to tell, that's the thing. Everyone reads the script and is going to have a different take on it, but as long as you know the story you're telling, listen to and hone in on that, leave yourself open to experimentation, and not have your eye on the final product. Leave yourself open to experiment. The biggest thing is finding what that tone is, because it is a very tragic piece. I think one of the traps of the play is that you could play the entire thing as a soap opera, but that's not how Bekah wrote it. There is humor at very dark moments, so find that grounded realism of grief in the moment and allow the humor to shine through. Everyone processes grief differently; some get horrible news and they burst into laughter, because that is their coping mechanism. Find it, but find it from a truthful place.
Sandy: When you're doing a production of love and art, the cast and creative team have to love the piece, and everyone that has read this piece has loved it.
What do you want audiences to take away?
Brandon: At a time in the world where people are struggling with technological or political issues or otherwise, what drew me to the play is that this is very simply about people being put into a position of struggling to connect in a way that they never have before. They need to accept each other, their own flaws and really embrace their love for this man who has passed away and be able to take a step forward in a healthy way that he would have wanted for them.
Thank you, Brandon for your time and wonderful input. The next few questions are for Sandy. Sandy, describe your character in great detail.
Sandy: This woman is very loving, always driven by the best intentions. She loves deeply, she obeys the rules, she wants to fit into the structure of the system. She had a very healthy, happy marriage and this son has been her world. My two sons are my whole world in my own life. There is nothing more important to me than my husband and my children, so I am coming to her with a lot of me. She's funny, charming and yet she's so surprised that her son has chosen someone that is so different. That throws me a little bit. Maybe she's lost him somewhere along the way; maybe there was something about me that wasn't so great. There's an appeal to try and win Melody over. They have come back to Connecticut with his job and part of his motivation was to be close to me, so I want this move to be successful. I do have motivation to like Melody, but I don't know her. Being so different, she is threatening to me. She's on my turf, so I can take control. I'm a control person, but always motivated by love.
Is there any character that you have played that is like her?
Ethel Banks from Barefoot in the Park. They are kissing cousins. She sees the funny side to things. She's funny, but takes her role very seriously, tries to stay on top of things. I usually play kooky people. I played Gertrude in Hamlet. She was also very loving and concerned, and motivated to do the right thing for her son without getting involved. There is a tendency with children, and I see it every day, that as boys age and approach adulthood, there's a pullback. It's hard as a mom to let go. I struggle with it as Sandy. It's a different energy that you bring to the table in dealing with your own children. Relating to them as adults, you need to find that new line to not cross. My own life doesn't always work out in a role, so I need to find new ways to relate to the show moments.
Apart from this and Barefoot in the Park you've done mostly musicals.
I haven't done as many plays. I'm so excited to be doing a play. It's so funny, because often times musical theatre actors get painted with a brush that they can't act. In this play, a true ensemble piece, every character has an interesting arc. For Hope, it runs every emotion that you can have as a human. It has guilt, it has remorse, it has loss, it has love, it has laughter, it has joy and it has tremendous sadness. I hope to do more plays.
I have always believed that a musical actress who can sing, dance and act, can do it all...and you certainly can.
Thank you, Don. From your lips to God's ears.
BE A GOOD LITTLE WIDOW
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Brandon Baer
Previews: Saturday, May 18 at 8pm;
Sunday May 19 at 2pm;
Wednesday, May 22 at 8pm
Thursday, May 23 at 8pm
Opens: Friday, May 24 at 8pm; /Runs: Friday, May 24 - Sunday, June 9, 2019
Performances: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets: $35.00 - $45.00 Tickets available online at OvationTix - https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1010034 or by calling the box office at (310) 477-2055 x2.