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‘How Cissy Grew’ is a one act with depth

Posted: November 3, 2008 4:44 p.m.
Updated: January 4, 2009 5:00 a.m.

Left to right: Stewart Calhoun, James Denton, Erin J. O'Brien and Liz Vital star in "How Cissy Grew," playing at the El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood through Nov. 23.

 
For those who adore the craft of acting as I do "How Cissy Grew" now playing at the El Portal Theatre in NoHo is an astonishing piece of theater. A character study drawn almost in pen and ink this powerful one act resonates - leaving the audience to ponder the implications of "nature versus nurture" long after exiting the theater.

The production stars James Denton, who is best known to audiences as Mike Delfino from ABC TV's "Desperate Housewives." Also starring are Denton's wife Erin J. O'Brien, Liz Vital and Stewart W. Calhoun.

"How Cissy Grew" begins with the uncomfortable premise of child abduction. Playwright Susan Johnston crafted the show from a single monologue written for a class project and expanded it into 70-minute one act that explores how a single moment, a single incident, can ripple through time and space like a stone thrown into a pond.

In West Virginia a baby girl named Cissy is kidnapped from a Kroger's grocery store while in the care of her father. She is swiftly returned to her family, but the experience haunts her family for the next 20 years.

"How Cissy Grew" explores the ramifications of those life-altering few days. As the actors move swiftly through the 35 scenes that comprise the one act, the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks alternating with "flash-forwards."

Denton portrays "Butch," a West Virginia "good old boy" trying to be the best dad, husband and man he knows how to be. O'Brien plays "Darla" tortured by the past, afraid to move past those few terrible days when her "miracle child" goes missing. Cissy is sassy and played with gusto by Vital. Her ability to move from careless child to careless young adult is enviable - and painfully authentic. Calhoun plays "The Guy" - by turns boys and young men - all trapped by Cissy's futile romantic dalliances.

Is the kidnapping the reason Cissy becomes a sexual promiscuous, fearless and callous young woman who follows in her parents footsteps of drug use? Would her life have unfolded in exactly the same way if she hadn't been kidnapped? Without the catalyst of the kidnapping would her parents relationship have foundered on the rocks of some other, more mundane, crisis or would they have lived happily ever after?

The questions aren't answered in this taut, thoughtful piece, only asked. It is up to the audience to draw its own conclusion, which is a delightful experience for playgoers tired of formulaic spoon-fed theater.

This is a play designed for those with a short attention span. With scenes so brief, some only seconds long, the actors must convey a mood, a time and a place in an instant. As the actors moved deftly from scene to scene, moving props and set pieces along the way, they made the transitions seem effortless and wore their characters easily, as if a second skin.

It is the small moments of this production that shine, the accents, the emotion, the intensity and the humor - all deftly directed by Casey Stangl - and all deftly played.

The play is performed in the El Portal's smaller and more intimate horseshoe-shaped Forum Theatre, the perfect venue for this small gem. With only 92 seats audiences are "up close and personal" with the actors who perform only inches away from the theater's front row of seats. Audiences can see the pain in Denton's eyes as he deals with his troubled daughter and his wife's accusations.

O'Brien, as Darla, is completely convincing in her role as Cissy's mom. The pain, heartache, hopes and dreams, all are brilliantly played. It is easy to walk away from this play hurting for "Darla" and her shattered life. She is flawed, but aren't we all?

Perhaps the answer to "How Cissy Grew" is a combination of nature and nurture. Cissy is too young to remember the kidnapping however the aftermath and how her parents handled the fallout certainly must have affected Cissy as a child, but what she has inherited from her parents makeup must also be factored into her personality. Perhaps the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

The El Portal Theatre, built as a vaudeville house in 1926, is a historic landmark on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood across the street from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The beautiful art deco marquee is one of the highly visible sites in the NoHo arts district.

From the Santa Clarita Valley the El Portal is a quick 25-minute drive, or less. Off the Hollywood freeway take the Magnolia exit, turn left, then drive a few blocks to turn left on Lankershim. Parking is available behind the theater a block up Lankershim on the left.

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