Fear and loathing in the 1950s. That’s what Perfect Arrangement, onstage through March 3 at freeFall Theatre, is all about.
Topher Payne’s dark comedy about a homosexual witch hunt during the McCarthy era has resonated with bay area audiences; it was originally scheduled to end this week, but one sold-out house after another necessitated an extension.
America has made substantial progress since the so-called Lavender Scare, when “coming out” all but guaranteed ostracization and possibly worse.
Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Early on,” says cast member Megan Therese Rippey, “we had some people walk out towards the beginning. And I think they were probably going ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was a gay play.’ But read the blurb, you know? We’re not hiding it.”
Perfect Arrangement tells the story of two married couples, Bob and Millie Martindale and Jimmy and Norma Baxter. They live in adjoining apartments in Washington, D.C. Bob and Norma work for the Department of State, and the big bosses – in cahoots with Congress’ Un-American Activities Committee – have tasked them with rooting “drunks, tramps and fags” out of the government.
In truth, Bob is involved with Jimmy, and Millie and Norma are a couple. Out of necessity – for their own survival – they’re living a lie.
“We have to tell these stories, and they have to be relevant,” says Rippey, who plays the quick-thinking Norma. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
It was freeFall artistic director Eric Davis’ fearless commitment to telling stories, through innovative and thought-provoking theater, that drew the California-based Rippey into his orbit. Living the gypsy life of a regional theater actor, she was in Sarasota in 2015 performing with Urbanite Theatre, when she caught Davis’ one-man production of The Tempest at freeFall.
“That really made an impression,” Rippey recalls. “It just blew my mind. I thought ‘What is this theater in St. Petersburg, Florida?’ Doing work that I felt was directly comparable to stuff I had been working on at CalArts, where I got my MFA. It was that same feeling of anything is possible, the magic of the theater is really alive here. It’s focused, it’s nuanced, it’s subtle and it’s interesting.”
Two years later, Davis cast her in two freeFall shows: Red Velvet, in which she played several characters, and Marie Antoinette (she had the title role).
Davis looked her up again while casting Perfect Arrangement. “Any email from Eric that says ‘Look at this play’ is a really exciting email to get,” Rippey says. “He said there were a few roles that he thought I would be the right type for. So I think he was seeing which role I’d gravitate towards. I immediately grabbed onto Norma. I thought, that’s my character. I’m Norma.”
Rippey submitted a video audition, and Davis invited her back to St. Pete.
“Working with Eric has been a weight off of my shoulders,” she explains. “I know that I can trust him, artistically, to do the right thing. So I’m never worried about the show. Sometimes you do, in this business, or when you’re working with a new or under-developed theater, and they’re putting up a show and you may not quite see where it’s going the way that they do. It’s really a soul-suck when that happens.
“I’ve never experienced that with Eric. He is just so good at what he does, and he does so much. So I just know every show is going to be an incredible expression.”
Rippey, originally from the Baltimore area, discovered acting in high school. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she created her own major (“Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies”). “I was already aware that the world didn’t put much stock in what you had a degree in, just that you had one,” she laughs. “And so I was really enjoying my classes. I became like a nerd, very bookish. For the first time in my life, I became a really good student.”
Still, she tried to perform in every play the school, and the local community theaters, put on. “I took a year off between undergrad and grad school, and I made a resolution that I would perform in 12 productions in one year. And I did – I actually did 14 in one year. And I don’t know how I did.”
In 2010, she auditioned for CalArts and was accepted. She met her husband in Los Angeles, and over time set up shop as a working actor. “It’s kind of a dream when you can get something locally,” Rippey reveals, “but working in L.A. is really hard. If the theaters want to cast good theater actors, they’ll look directly to New York City. And if they want to cast people locally, they only hire ‘names.’ They only hire people that have been in some TV show that everyone knows. So you have to be one or the other.”
So she enjoys traveling the country (she drives everywhere, even to Florida). “It’s fun to get out of that weird ‘You’re not enough of this, you’re not enough of that’ zone and just do your work elsewhere.”
Next on her plate (after a belated honeymoon trip to Hawaii) is a solo show, Deer Woman, at the Son of Semele Ensemble Solo Creation Festival.
For now, her life revolves around Perfect Arrangement.
In true Eric Davis fashion, it’s being presented in a non-traditional way – the long, rectangular stage is in the center of the black box theater, with the audience seated, just a breath away from the actors and the action, on either side.
This, of course, gives an intimate effect, bringing the viewer directly into the lives of Millie, Norma, Bob and Jimmy.
For the actors, Rippey laughs, “it makes it a lot harder to concentrate and stay focused! When a cell phone rings, or someone’s opening a wrapper, we are just as distracted as everyone else in the audience. And it is taking every ounce of will power not to look at that person.”