My mom likes to tell a story about a 2 or 3 year-old version of me, playing out some elaborate imagining I'd developed in the living room of my grandparents' house, while a crowd of older relatives watched and laughed and even participated here and there, thanks to my occasional cajoling.
The story goes that one of the cousins -- who was in his late teens or early twenties -- walked into the kitchen and approached my mom, saying, "Francie, I think we adults out here are manipulating your son a little."
To which my mom gently replied, "No, sweetie. He's manipulating you." She smiled while she said it then, I'm sure, because she smiles when she says it now, and also because she herself had experienced that innocent "manipulation" with me on a fairly regular basis, one that wasn't hurtful or negative, but rather an invitation to play -- to join in on the game I'd invented right off the top of my head.
So it's natural that I still like to play, that I still like to imagine and act and perform for audiences. Those of you who have seen me in local productions like the Southwest Nebraska Community Theatre Association's productions of "Paint Your Wagon," "The Mikado," or "Harvey," or in "The Pajama Game," a production in Imperial a few years back, know that for a fact. And if you saw one (or all) of those shows, you know I'm certainly not alone. A sizable number of folks around here love to put on a show for their friends and neighbors; there's two such productions being mounted in as many weeks, one here in McCook (SWNCTA's "God's Favorite") and the other in Bartley (the Old Settlers' Days melodrama "Zorro's Back in Town").
Linda Clark, the director of "Zorro's," said that she and her cast have been working since June on their show, which is about a town being oppressed by a greedy, grasping villain when legendary swordsman hero Zorro returns to save the day. In other words, it has "everything a melodrama is supposed to have," Clark said.
This is the second year of the melodrama, which was established by the Southwest Public Schools Foundation, a group of citizens who work to raise funds that will be used to supply scholarships to graduates of Southwest High School.
The cast and crew is from towns through the area: Indianola, Bartley and Danbury, just to name a few. Any friend of Southwest High School was welcome to participate, Clark said. "We've got farmers, students, lots of local people," she added, agreeing with me that these kinds of programs are not only fun for the people working on-stage and behind the scenes, but also for the audiences, who get the chance to see their friends, neighbors and business associates doing and saying things that are -- most of the time, anyway -- well out of character.
The cast of "Zorro's Back in Town" will take the stage at Southwest High School in Bartley, Saturday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m., with a matinee on Sunday, Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $6 at the door, but advance tickets are only $5; those are available at various businesses, including Bartley State Bank, Bartley Lumber, Adams Bank and Trust, Lord's of Indianola, Haag Insurance and the Southwest High School office. (Clark added that these lower-priced tickets will also be available for purchase from cast members during the Old Settlers' Days parade on Saturday.) There will also be a fundraising meal served by students of the high school from 5 to 7 p.m. on the night of the first show.
SWNCTA has a track record of putting together a variety of excellent productions, usually a musical in the spring and a play in the late summer or fall. After the success earlier this year with "The Music Man," director Don Harpst has chosen to mount the Neil Simon comedy "God's Favorite." Loosely based on the Book of Job, and written by one of the stage's eminent playwrights, it's a very funny examination of human frailty, one that also carries a surprising punch in its moving climax.
"God's Favorite" is the story of a wealthy yet fundamentally decent man named Joe Benjamin (vividly portrayed by Randy Andrews) whose world of luxury comes crashing down around him, his family (Peg Andrews, Chris Messinger, Joseph McCarty and David Sandman) and household staff (Nancy Haller-Towne and Chuck Trail) after a decidedly odd fellow named Sidney Lipton -- who claims to be a messenger of God -- breaks into the family mansion one winter's night to pass Joe the message that not only is he God's absolute favorite person on Earth, but that God and the Devil have decided to test his faith through a gauntlet of physically and emotional trials.
Full disclosure: I'm playing the said "odd fellow." (Is it a stretch? Some might say no.) But even if I wasn't in this show, I'd be excited about it being staged here in McCook. The cast (myself excepted) is a fine one, the technical aspects are being handled with the same level of care that SWNCTA shows are always given, and because the show is being mounted "in the round" at McCook Community College's intimate Weeth Flex Theatre, the space itself promises to elevate both the big laughs and the darker, more emotional moments of the presentation.
"God's Favorite" opens Thursday, Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m., with additional shows on Friday and Saturday nights at the same time, as well as a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are now available for $10 at Hershberger's Music and Janssen-Kool Honda in McCook; tickets will also be available at the door, but SWNCTA is advising potential attendees that seating on show nights could be limited.
Both "Zorro's Back in Town" and "God's Favorite" promise to be excellent programs, no doubt. They're open invitations to the public to come and play, if only for a moment -- or at least to sit back and enjoy the sight of your friends and neighbors doing just that.