Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Like Heaven
Estrella Mountain Community College / The Bridge Initiative
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Private Lives and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Natalie Andrews, Maren Maclean, Brenda Jean Foley,
and Shonda Royall

Photo by Rick Meinecke
Arizona based playwright Elaine Romero, who serves as the playwright-in-residence at the Arizona Theatre Company, has written dozens of plays. Two years ago, 14 theatre companies, including Arizona Theatre Company and The Bridge Initiative, presented virtual presentations of Romero's work in an event called "RomeroFest" and her play Like Heaven just received its local premiere in a co-production from The Bridge Initiative and Estrella Mountain Community College that ran through this past weekend.

Like Heaven was originally written as a 10-minute play as part of the William Inge Theatre Festival's 24-Hour Plays, where Romero served as an Inge Playwright-in-Residence, and was presented in various workshops and readings as well as in a production at Artists Repertory Theatre at the University of Arizona in 2018. The play is set in Independence, Kansas, and focuses on four women: sisters April and Callie; Callie's best friend Trudy; and Sapphire, a newcomer in town.

April is restless. Her marriage isn't fulfilling, her husband is a flirt and she suspects he's been unfaithful. She's ready to leave Independence and head west to forge a path as a singer but her younger sister Callie won't let her go until she gets used to the idea of being left alone, as it's been less than three months since their mother passed away. Callie wants April to stay for just one more day, or maybe three, and then they can both move on with their lives. When Callie's best friend Trudy and her new friend Sapphire stop by for a picnic, it sets in motion a series of revelations and confrontations that test their friendships.

Like Heaven is somewhat reminiscent of other plays set in the South that focus on eccentric characters and the bonds between sisters and their female friends, such as Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias. Romero has crafted interesting characters and peppers the dialogue with lines like "What are friends for if they can't tell each other the truth?" and Kansas-focused Wizard of Oz jokes, but the characters' actions don't always ring true, especially in how quick they are to forget indiscretions their friends have made or in keeping secrets the closest of friends have never told each other. Also, some of the revelations come out of nowhere and some of the dialogue seems forced.

I previously reviewed a digital play reading of Romero's Halsted and found that piece to be an exceptional and introspective piece that focused on an autobiographical moment in Romero's life. The characters here are more broadly written and not as realistic as those in Halsted, even if they are distinct. Having less defined characters or dialogue and revelations that aren't fully true to the characters would be fine if this were a farcical comedy, but Like Heaven strives to be a moving drama about sisterly bonds and friendships that has some comic moments, and that's why it doesn't truly succeed.

The cast for this production were all quite good under Samantha Wyer Bello's direction. Maren Maclean and Shonda Royall were excellent in the two showier parts, the flamboyant and bohemian Sapphire and the religious and opinionated Trudy, respectively, and they both brought their characters vibrantly alive. I've seen both Maclean and Royall in several plays and they always add dimension and nuance to their characters which is something they both excelled at here.

Natalie Andrews was wonderful as the grounded and introspective Callie; her line delivery and embodiment of the character was perfect. Brenda Jean Foley was good as the restless April. Unfortunately, though April's desire to leave town is the catalyst for most of the action in the piece, April takes a bit of a backseat to what's going on around her and she gets somewhat lost amongst the play's more eccentric characters, especially when up against the strong performances by Maclean and Royall.

The Estrella Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center is a beautiful space and venue, and the creative elements for this production were great. Romero's script says the set design should be based on the childhood home of playwright William Inge in Independence, Kansas, and the beautiful scenic design by Tiana Torrihon-Wood delivered a somewhat realistic setting of the front porch and front yard of a large Southern home. Stacey Walston's lighting and Will Rogers's sound design added realism to the feeling of the Kansas setting, and the costumes by Lindsey Penner were character specific.

Like Heaven ran May 6-13, 2023, at Estrella Mountain Community College Fine Arts Center, 3000 North Dysart Road, Avondale AZ. A co-production of Estrella Mountain Community College and The Bridge Initiative.

Director: Samantha Wyer Bello
Scenic Designer: Tiana Torrihon-Wood
Costume Designer: Lindsey Gardner-Penner
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Sound Design: Daniel Nishimura
Fight Director: Dave Maier
Stage Manager: Kailey Mattheisen
Assistant Stage Manager: Keller Hans

Cast: (In order of appearance)
April: Brenda Jean Foley* Callie: Natalie Andrews Trudy: Shonda Royall Sapphire: Maren Maclean* * Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.