AV High grad re-examines
Lancaster roots in ‘Sixty’
BY STEVE HENDRICKSON
Lancaster takes a rough jabbing in the play “Sixty Minutes from L.A.,” running through March 18 at the Gene Dynarsky Theater in Hollywood. Lancaster bashers, however, receive a few wacks, too.
The play takes place in the living room of former high school cheerleader Lori’s childhood home. A group of former classmates are planning their 10-year reunion. Copies of the Antelope Valley High School yearbook “Yucca” are visible on the coffee table, but the memories they evoke for these characters is lost friendship, lost opportunity and the unhealed wounds.
Lori tells her friend, Samantha, “I am thinking of moving back to Lancaster. I want to raise a family where the schools are safe, and where the kids can live a normal life.” Samantha reacts as though she had just seen her friend place her forehead to the barrel of a gun. Lori’s kids will grow up stifled, insists Samantha. Lori’s son “will attend the JC, plan to go to a four-year school but never go, and spend the rest of his life riveting airplanes at Lockheed.” Her daughter would get pregnant at 17 and spend the rest of her life working at Vons. Lori is liable to become “fat and shop at Kmart.”
What does Samantha know about Lancaster? She is played by Lisa Nichols, who also wrote the play. Nichols graduated from Antelope Valley High as Lisa Gordon in 1982, moved away to attend college, became an actress and married actor Stephen Nichols (“Patch” Johnson on “Days of Our Lives”). Her husband directs “Sixty Minutes From L.A.,” and plays Samantha’s successful novelist boyfriend, Daniel.
This is Lisa Nichols’ first play, and like a first attempt, has awkward elements an experienced writer learns to integrate better, or leave out. But Nichols also shows a strong knack for character: she has created a number of roles and given most of them enough to keep us involved. Nichols has the intelligence to look beneath and beyond the most obvious motivations, and she has the courage to let go, to leave something for the audience’s imagination, where a play ultimately lives.
In “Sixty Minutes,” much of the story centers around Lori, played by Jana Howard. She is the girl who tried to do everything right, settle all conflicts, and satisfy a demanding, manipulative mother. Even her move from Lancaster to the city may have been because it was the expected thing; there are hints that she severed ties before she was actually ready to.
Her possible move to Lancaster makes her the battleground between Samantha and Shelly (Eileen O’Sullivan). Samantha and Shelly represent differing poles of thinking, but also prove to share some common ground in self-delusion.
Lisa Nichols plays Samantha with inspired harshness. She comes in wearing L.A. — that tough, sophisticated mask ex-Valleyrites wear in order to impress those who remained behind. One never lets the provincials see how unhappy you might be: One draws some succor from at least not living “there,” and beside, there are the ghosts of how you image they will respond.
Unhappiness goes back, in Samantha’s case, to a young, spirited girl who didn’t fit as a child in Lancaster. The beauty, in both Nichols’ writing and acting performance, are the hints of how much of this unhappiness was of her own creation. Lancaster, and smaller cities and towns in general, may sometimes be the whipping boy that allows the city Samanthas to avoid owning up.
Shelly, meanwhile, is a former high school softball star who stayed. She finds her adulthood lonely. She misses Lori, whom she feels is under the dubious influence of Samantha. Shelly is a shorts and sweatshirt and straight hair and tennis shoes counterpart to Samantha’s skirts you have to poured into, wild hair and spiked heels. Shelly seems to see herself as the down-to-earth realist. Unmoved by the dubious call of Los Angeles that dazzles insecure and insincere people like Samantha. Never mind that it may have been the Shellys that made the Samanthas feel unwelcome in the first place.
Shelly, too, cannot see her true self. She remained in Lancaster partly out of a lack of initiative, and out of a terror against seeking what she might have really wanted in life. Her unpretentious manner is a pretension. She seems no more clear as to her reasons for staying than Samantha is about leaving.
As Samantha and Shelly battle, with the classic thrusts of those who leave for the city and those who stayed, Lori grows to realize that she must make a decision based on her own desires, not on whose favor she can curry. And through Lori we see the trade-offs, what must be lost, what would be gained, from living on either side of the mountains.
There are others stories taking place, too — a forced, awkward one involving Samantha’s sexual fling at 17 with a political activist teacher (played by Scott Mulhern), who is now married, older, and still in Lancaster. More explosive is the conflict between Samantha and her famous but unfaithful boyfriend, Daniel.
In the 1980s, we would expect this woman to dump the jerk, but surprisingly, Samantha doesn’t. Playwright Nichols introduces elements that cast further doubt on Samantha’s clarity, and hints at even wider common ground between Shelly and Samantha. This willingness to explore another direction further indicates that Nichols is a playwright who should be encouraged to develop further.
If you ever left the Antelope Valley and returned, left and didn’t return, or never left at all, you will likely recognize the three main characters. Nichols’ Samantha and Howard’s Lori are particularly well played. O’Sullivan keeps Shelly intriguing, but not always above caricature.
The character of Dennis and the former Miss Alfalfa Festival and battered, gossipy housewife Cindy (Elizabeth Hipwell) were more annoying soap opera contrivances that would have been better developed elsewhere, or left out. Again, that comes with experience.
Credit, too, Stephen Nichols, both for his intimidating menace as Daniel, and for shaping this first-time work into a stage production. Credit the sparse but effective (and prospectively interesting) set my Vincent J. Cresciman, and effective lighting by Terry Welden and the clothing that delineates the warring camps, by Sybil Gray.
Credit begins with Lisa Nichols, however. She shows how it’s not enough to dismiss ones roots as the habitant of inconsequential ghosts. As her character Shelly says: “We’re not ghosts here — we’re real.”