Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

World Premiere! Plays through Nov. 6 at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Welcome back, regional theatre! For the past 16 months, we've been sporadically seeing a variety of virtual and drive-in plays, musicals, and revues, but it's great to get back to live, in-person theatre, so VC On Stage is delighted to be back reporting on shows being presented in your back yard.

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Playwright John Guerra (photo by Rebecca Aranda)

The Last Best Small Town, written by local playwright John Guerra, can best be compared to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a depiction of everyday people in a small town that uses metatheatrical devices to tell its story. Guerra admits being influenced by Wilder's play but wanted to write something closer to the world that he grew up in, instead of Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners of the late 1930s. The Last Best Small Town takes place in Fillmore, California, an actual small, semi-rural town in the heart of Ventura County where whites and Latinos coexist, living side by side. As a half-Mexican Southern California native, Guerra was able to translate Wilder's depiction of small-town life into a story familiar to him and the result is a well-written, superbly performed play whose overriding themes range from love and hope to tragedy, despair, regret, and the consequences of decisions made. The show is being given its world premiere at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon through November 6.

The Geer's outdoor theatre is ideal for a play like this. Its expansive, woodsy stage is a dream for blocking scenes with its terraced space which includes several sets of staircases, two wooden structures, and a picturesque mountain backdrop. As in Our Town, Guerra's play uses a narrator, in this case, a character who introduces himself as "the playwright" (who many in the audience actually thought was Guerra himself). Leandro Cano plays the part with engaging humor, addressing the audience and introducing each character, in one instance seamlessly becoming a real estate broker in the story.

The story begins in 2005 as the Playwright introduces two neighboring families, the Millers and the Gonzalezes. Hank Miller works as editor of the Fillmore Gazette, but has problems paying his bills. Still, the Miller family, consisting of his wife Willow and teenaged children Marcus and Maya, seemingly live a happy life. Marcus, who is never seen, has enlisted in the Marine Corps, leaving his boyhood friend and neighbor, Elliot Gonzalez, wondering about his future as he prepares his own high school graduation speech.

Elliot's father Benny commutes by bus to his job at a car dealership while his mother Delores (known to all as "Della") adds income to the family by working as a maid at the Fillmore Best Western, in addition to cleaning the Millers' home on weekends. It is apparent at the outset that Benny considers Della's work to be demeaning and resents Willow Miller treating her like an underling. Rounding out the Gonzalez clan is Benny's tippling, free-loading father Chuy, who nevertheless is close with his grandson, Elliot.

Elliot is the first member of his family who has a chance to attend college but is filled with self-doubt, fearful of letting his parents down and wasting the money they are saving for his tuition. Elliot's decision to go to college or stay in Fillmore is tempered by his affection for 17-year-old Maya Miller, who he discovers has been in love with him since they were children growing up together. When Maya has to make a similar decision the following year, it affects both of their lives permanently. What happens to the Miller and Gonzalez families reflects decisions being made by Americans everywhere. It takes courage, self-confidence, and maturity to make a decision that involves uprooting your life and moving away, but for the two families in the play, the decisions they make result in painful, even tragic consequences.

A few of the plot developments are predictable, including one in the final scene that was intended as an unexpected twist but instead was easily telegraphed, but generally, the play is warm and engaging, with each character coming off as likable and sympathetic.

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Jordan Tyler Kessler (Maya) and Kelvin Morales (Elliot) (photo by Ian Flanders)

Jordan Tyler Kessler (Maya) and Kelvin Morales (Elliot) are superb in their respective parts and show an easy chemistry as their characters explore each other's feelings. In one remarkable scene, Maya returns from college to revisit her home town and, in her imagination, regresses to childhood, playing her toddler self as she is babysat by the Gonzalezes, contentedly playing with Legos with little Elliot. Both handle their transition to their younger selves seamlessly in this unusual but effective flashback.

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Richard Azurdia (Benny) and Miguel Perez (Chuy) (photo by Ian Flanders)

Miguel Perez is a charming rogue as Benny's no-account father Chuy while Katia Gomez and Richard Azurdia play the Gonzalez parents with sympathetic humanity. Both Christopher Wallinger, Hank, whose home life consists mainly of his watering his lawn, and Christine Breihan, as Maya's distracted mother, are also excellent, although their characters need to be drawn out more.

Review: THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum

Christopher Wallinger (Hank) and Christine Breihan (Willow) (photo by Ian Flanders)

The overall excellence of the acting masked some problems with Guerra's play, in addition to a few predictable plot twists. Benny Gonzalez's belief that anti-Latino racism has kept his family in a lower-middle-class strata is not fully explored while the Miller parents' characters are broadly drawn and do not give any insight into their own feelings, other than Willow's shame and disappointment at her unexciting life.

The story is ultimately downcast, as none of the characters' decisions turn out to be the right ones, as one of the families is shattered into pieces and the other appears to be destined for sustained desultory mediocrity. Still, this slice of modern life will be meaningful to Ventura County audiences, who will not only see a part of their own world in the story, but might even see a part of themselves as well.

The Last Best Small Town plays through November 6 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. For information, visit or call the box office at (310) 455-3723.

Photos: First Look at 5-Star Theatricals Production of RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL Photo
5-STAR THEATRICALS is presenting the first show of its 2023-2024 season, the Tony Award winning, RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL, book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, conductor and musical direction by Tom Griffin, choreography by Michelle Elkin and directed by Jeffrey Polk. Check out photos from the production here!

ANASTASIA Comes to Bank of America PAC Photo
The American Theatre Guild will present the dazzling new Broadway musical, ANASTASIA. This production is part of the BROADWAY IN THOUSAND OAKS SERIES and will take the Bank of America Performing Arts Center stage April 27–30, 2023.

Santa Paula Theater Center Presents  HOME, IM DARLING By Laura Wade Photo
The Santa Paula Theater Center will present Laura Wade's HOME, I'M DARLING from April 14th - May 21st, 2023 on their Mainstage at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 pm on Sundays.

Jim Jefferies Comes To Thousand Oaks Photo
One of the funniest stand-up comedians working today, Jim Jefferies brings his new tour to the Fred Kavli Theatre on Thursday, October 5 at 7:00 pm.

From This Author - Cary Ginell

Interview: Mary Beth Webber of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts PlazaInterview: Mary Beth Webber of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
March 10, 2023

The classic 1964 musical Fiddler On the Roof arrives in Thousand Oaks on Thursday, March 9 and prior to opening we had a chat with Mary Beth Webber, who plays the part of Yente in the show. Mary Beth is jubilant and honored to join this amazing cast and crew as she makes her national tour debut. Her favorite roles include M'Lynn (Steel Magnolias), Elsa (The Sound of Music), and Mama Noah (Children of Eden), however, her most important role to date is Mom to her seven daughters.

Previews: THE NAMELESS STAR at Conejo Players TheatrePreviews: THE NAMELESS STAR at Conejo Players Theatre
February 27, 2023

On Sunday, March 5, the Conejo Players Theatre will be presenting a staged reading of The Nameless Star, a 1942 play written by Romanian playwright Mihail Sebastian about a chance encounter at a remote train station between a modest astronomy professor at a local girls' school and a glamorous young woman, a stowaway who finds herself stranded after being tossed off an express train for not having the necessary fare. Producer Elena Mills recalled the play from her childhood and has spent years wanting to bring it to the stage, which has resulted in this special theatrical 'experiment.'

January 30, 2023

Immersive 'stage reading' of Disney's account of his last days on earth is both frightening and hilarious.

Review: PROMISES, PROMISES at Lonny Chapman TheatreReview: PROMISES, PROMISES at Lonny Chapman Theatre
December 12, 2022

What did our critic think of PROMISES, PROMISES at Lonny Chapman Theatre? Excellent leads and good singing highlight this attractive show.

Interview: Cary Ginell of CAREFULLY TAUGHT (BOOK) atInterview: Cary Ginell of CAREFULLY TAUGHT (BOOK) at
December 5, 2022

Cary Ginell's insightful new book, 'Carefully Taught' looks at 40 musicals, both on Broadway and off, that deal with events and personages in American history. A fun read, educational and highly entertaining. Shows include '1776,' 'Hamilton,' 'Shenandoah,' 'Parade,' 'Hair,' 'Assassins,' and many more.