Review: ‘Farce of Habit’: ‘Community theater saved my life!’

Napa Valley Register Review By John Henry Martin, February 20, 2019

Last fall, I went to Valley Players production of “Ordinary Day” about a couple in their 70s, one of whom was facing impending deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease. They hatch a plan which includes stockpiling sleeping pills for a “final solution” that doesn’t succeed.

It was a prescient comment on a critical issue that many Americans are facing, now that Alzheimer’s is the third most common form of death in the aged, after cancer and heart disease. The play was powerful, emotional and well acted, with a rotating set designed by an architect, giving the production a feel that belied the conservative resources to which the Valley Player’s have access.

I left the theater edified, but exhausted, with a heightened sense of a huge problem we as humans are facing these days, which, of course, is the whole point of the theater, indeed, the whole point of any art. That’s what great theater does. It’s a point that the Valley Players are intent on driving home, one production after the next.

Patte Quinn and Rhonda Bowen in Farce of Habit

“Farce of Habit,” their latest production playing at the Lincoln Theater, is no “Ordinary Day.” This is a rambunctious, semi-absurd, for the fun of it, silly romp that’s as greasy and crunchy as your Aunt Thelma’s fried chicken.

It takes place in one day at the Reel ‘Em Inn, a fishing lodge in the Ozarks, on the eve of a huge storm. The proprietors of the lodge are D. Gene Wilburn, played by Kit Grimm, a hapless old-timer who only wants to go bass fishing on the lake; and Wanelle, his wife, played by Patte Quinn, a squeaky waif who is addicted to coffee. They are both perfectly cast as the type of less-than-sophisticated gentry, with accents to match, you’d meet in rural Arkansas.

Wanelle and D. Gene’s daughter-in-law is Jenna Wilburn, played by a charmingly, innocently demure Christina Julian. She is the cook at the Inn and married to Wanelle and D. Gene’s dopey son Ty, played by Craig Rekdahl, to truly goofy effect.

A regular at the Inn is Maxie, the town sheriff, played by stalwart tough girl Krisi Pilkington Adams. She too has the requisite accent, a short drawl where one syllable words are forced into two, and the ends of sentences rise as if they’re taking flight.

The guests populating the Inn on this night are Jock McNair, an arrogant radio personality hiding out from his ex-wife, played by Robert Silva; his ex-wife, Barbara Stratton, played by Rhonda Bowen, who rather improbably stumbles upon him at the Inn after traveling all the way from Los Angeles; Sister Myrtle Agnes, the most vicious, coarse and vindictive nun you’ve ever met, played by Randi Storm; and Huddle Fisk, a rail thin accountant type who is looking to break out of his boring life as an office drone and have an adventure, played by James Adams.

As the play begins, D. Gene and Wanelle are confronted by Jock, a radio personality who preaches the importance of honesty, telling them they need to conquer their vices. Wanelle loves coffee too much and apparently D. Gene needs to get over his itch. I thought this kind of odd, as usually an itch is something to be treated by a dermatologist. But not at the Reel ‘Em Inn in Mayhew, Arkansas. Taming the itch requires self control, not a topical moisturizer, and leads to Wanelle securing oven mitts to D. Gene’s hands with duct tape, and a truly hysterical physical bit of comedy where D. Gene itches himself on the arm of the couch.

And what’s wrong with coffee? Poor Wanelle is so distraught by her desire for a cup of joe that she practically dips her nose into Sheriff Maxie’s cup as she waves it all over. But it became clear that Jones Hope Wooden were going for a G rating with this play, and so it was a coffee habit that had to be kicked, rather than the harder stuff.

Krisi Pilkington Adams, Christina Julian and Patte Quinn in Farce of Habit

We’re introduced to poor Jenna Wilburn, in tears, as she laments the fact that her husband Ty is never home, but always happy. She has no idea what he’s up to. She thinks he’s cheating on her and is very distraught. But soon we find out, in a twist that is very meta, that Ty is in a community theater production of “Around the World in 80 Days” and is having the time of his life.

This particular aspect of the plot gave the costume designer plenty to do, as Ty makes an appearance at the Inn, coming home from a different location around the world. He spends the entire second act dressed as nineteenth century can-can dancer, complete with a red feather in his hair. There’s nothing funnier than a dude in a dress.

But what is also funny is how much Jenna, D. Gene and Wanelle chastise him for loving community theater. Every time he makes an appearance, as a matador or in a lederhosen, they roll their eyes and laugh, never taking his joy seriously. I can only think the Jones Hope Wooden, having written nineteen plays at this point, realize that they aren’t writing for Broadway. Community theater is their bag, for better or worse, so they might as well embrace the charm and have fun with it.

Perhaps the most bizarre character in the play who is completely apropos of nothing, is Sister Myrtle, who comes and goes, basically without reason or cause, wreaking havoc at every turn. When she finds out that D. Gene has a phobia of nuns, as a result of a humiliation he endured in a childhood production of “The Sound of Music” — another nod to community theater — she chases him with a stick and he cowers like a little girl while yelling at him in a hoarse, raspy, nails-on-a-chalkboard voice.

And this is where they get the name of the play. “Farce of Habit” is a play on Force of Habit, which may refer to the habits, itching and coffee, from which D. Gene and Wanelle try to break themselves. The “Habit” most likely also refers to the habit the nun wears. Though, after seeing the play, given the depth of the plot, it’s best not to think about it that much.

The plot thickens when Sheriff Maxie announces that the Justice of the Peace has been killed by an axe murderer who leaves fun-size Baby Ruth candy bar wrappers at the scene of the crime. And, somehow, the next most important thing about his murder is knowing that he hadn’t filed any marriage certificates for the past eight years, leading Ty and Jenna to realize that they aren’t really married. So, and I don’t quite know how this followed, Ty spends the rest of the play, trying, and failing, to woo Jenna again. He does this dressed as a 19th century can-can dancer with a red feather in his hair. Jenna doesn’t quite know what to do.

But the mystery persists! Who is the axe murderer? Where will he (or she) strike next? What are all these fun sized Baby Ruth wrappers doing on the floor!? Oh no! The murderer is right here with us! Everyone panic! And they do.

James Adams’ Huddle Fisk has a moment that you can’t miss. Sheriff Maxie, in a detail that I’m not sure how it fits in with the rest of the plot, creates a potion that is supposed to do something that is not made clear, but when drank, ends up wreaking havoc. Huddle Fisk takes the potion, and his gangling, spindly arms and legs do bends and kicks that were so perfectly awkward they had the entire audience rolling.

Later, Adams’ Fisk has the wherewithal to strut out on stage in nothing but a pair of red briefs and white tennis shoes, truly displaying more courage than most. Then, in an attempt to get in shape, he shows up in running shorts, a tank top, knee-high socks and fluorescent sweat and wristbands, clearly the worst in 1980s workout gear, which is a joke to us now, nearly 40 years later.

And don’t forget the subplot of Jock McNair, the narcissistic radio personality, and his soon to be ex-wife Barbara Stratton, which proceeds completely independent of the axe murderer plot. Jock hides from Barbara because he’s afraid she is going to force him to sign a document that would sign over his royalties to her, and leave him destitute. At least I think. What was clear, however, was that Robert Silva was definitely enjoying being a jerk.

In fact, the utter joy the cast took in performing this zany, absurd little play was contagious. You could tell they were having a good time, and when the actors do, the audience does as well.

At the end of the play, when the murderer is confronted, Ty, whose experience in “Around the World in 80 Days” helped him to apprehend the villain, says, “Community theater saved my life!” I think for the Jones Hope Wooden, it has. But for the rest of us, it’s just a soothing balm, an antidote to the news and the tension we’re immersed in these days. It may not save your life on a grand scale, but it may save your life for today.

Go see “Farce of Habit.” Don’t expect any heavy-handed themes or morals. It’s just a G-rated, fun for the whole family, bon bon of a show—perfect for a night out with the grandparents.