A Jewish, Midwestern, Chekhovian comic drama for the 21st century will be the third offering in The Echo Theater Company’s 2015 season at Atwater Village Theatre, the company’s new permanent home. Jennifer Chambers directs the world premiere of Better, a gentle examination of family and mortality by Jessica Goldberg, opening Oct. 4.
Leaving her husband Cal (Johnathan McClain) behind in New York City to watch her son, Annie (Meredith Bishop) returns to her childhood home in the Midwest to escape marital discord and visit her father (Joe Spano), who is dying of cancer. As dramatic changes outside of her control take place around her, she reconnects with her mother (Sigute Miller), grandmother (Eve Sigall) and brother (Jeremy Maxwell), and childhood friends (Andrea Grano and Malcolm Madera). Secrets are revealed, wine is drunk, songs are sung and relationships rekindled.
According to Goldberg, Better is about entering Act Two of life. “Suddenly parents are dying, marriages are dying, and you realize your youthful dreams have been replaced by practical realities,” she explains. “It's about raging against all that. And, I suppose, finally accepting, holding both realities at the same time: the gain with the loss. And I hope that it’s a little silly and funny, too.”
“This play really captures how ridiculous and sad life is in the face of inevitable loss,” says Echo artistic director Chris Fields. “It’s the kind of script that makes you laugh, then cry — all within the space of three minutes.”
Better marks the fourth collaboration between Goldberg and The Echo Theater Company: In 1999, Goldberg’s Good Thing was developed at the Echo-founded Ojai Playwrights Conference before it went on to the Taper Too; in 2003 the company commissioned her An Affair Play as part of that year’s Echo One-Acts; and, in 2008, the Echo’s world premiere of Goldberg’s Body Politic was Ovation-nominated. Chambers and the Echo have spent the past year-and-half working with the playwright to develop Better. “It contains a true Chekhovian dynamic,” Chambers says. “The idea of going home as a grown up, how you become a kid again. In some ways we can never go back.”
Scenic design for Better is by Stephen Gifford; lighting design is by R. Christopher Stokes; sound design is by Mike Hooker; costume design is by Sharell L. Martin; graphic design is by Elizabeth Hale; and the production stage manager is Samantha McCann. Chris Fields and Gwenn Morreale produce.
Jessica Goldberg is a playwright, screenwriter and television writer. Her other plays include Body Politic, Get What You Need, Sex Parasite, Good Thing, Refuge (winner of the 1999 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize), The Hologram Theory and Stuck. She directed her first feature film, adapted from her play Refuge (see the film on Amazon, iTunes, or Netflix), and Alex of Venice, which she co-wrote, was directed by Chris Messina and will be released in the winter of 2015. She has written on the television shows Deception, Camp, and currently writes for NBC’s Parenthood. A graduate of NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program and The Juilliard School, she was a Tennessee Williams Fellow at the University of the South, and a recipient of The Le Compte de Nouy stipend, the first annual Helen Merrill Award and a 2,000 Berrilla Kerr Foundation Award. She has been a resident at The O’Neill Playwrights Conference, New River Dramatists, The Missoula Colony and The New Harmony Project. She is a member of The Dramatist Guild and PEN American Center.
Jennifer Chambers’ directing credits include last year’s critically acclaimed production of Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch at the Zephyr Theatre; Complete at the Matrix Theatre; Play Dates at the Asylum Theatre (L.A. Times “Critic’s Choice”); the world premiere of Stephen Belber’s The Muscles in Our Toes at the El Portal; Yog Sothoth, The Third Best Debater and Here to Serve You at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre; and Suzan Lori Park’s 365 Play/365 Days at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She has assisted Jonathan Moscone on Cal Shakespeare’s production of Man and Superman and Liz Diamond on Catherine Treischman’s Crooked at the Women’s Project Theatre. She was the assistant director of the Piedmont Children’s Theatre and has directed autobiographical theater pieces at the Living Arts Center in Berkeley, California. She is a professional actress who has performed on Broadway, has numerous regional credits, and has written and performed two autobiographical solo pieces, Choices at the Marsh Theatre and Mine at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has an undergraduate degree in theater arts from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy from The California Institute of Integral Studies.
The Echo Theater Company is a group of actors, writers, directors and producers dedicated to developing and presenting the work of playwrights on all levels. Under the leadership of artistic director Chris Fields, the Echo has produced 57 plays, 43 of them world premieres and 28 of them commissioned, and is the company that introduced Los Angeles to playwrights David Lindsay-Abaire, Adam Rapp and Sarah Ruhl, among many others. After a two-decade itinerant existence, Echo moved to Atwater Village Theatre in January, its first permanent home, where the 2015 season of world premieres kicked off with Tommy Smith’s “unthinkable love story” Firemen, followed by Mickey Birnbaum’s full-contact dark comedy Backyard and the annual The Echo One Acts, an evening of six commissioned one-act plays that all share the same setting.
Better runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., Oct. 4 through Nov. 6. There will be one preview performance on Friday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. All tickets are $25. Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039. On-site parking is free. For reservations and information, call (310) 307-3753 or go to www.EchoTheaterCompany.com.