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Dr. Cook’s Garden (Rio Nido/Guerneville)

What’s a community theatre company to do when they lose their lead actor eight days before a show opens? Most companies survive show-to-show, so cancellation really isn’t an option (especially since sets have been built and most of the budget spent). Postponement can be a problem, too, as many actors and crew members make other commitments around a show’s run.  Re-casting is usually the only viable option, but that is often easier said than done. So what do they do? The best they can.

The Pegasus Theater Company dealt with just such a challenge in presenting their current production of Ira Levin’s “Dr. Cook’s Garden” (running now through February 16th).  Having lost the actor portraying the title character, they found themselves in the unenviable position of finding an actor willing to take on the challenge of accepting a major role with next-to-no time to learn the lines and blocking and develop a character.  Did I mention the character was a 70 year old country doctor?

With no real time to find an available actor, director Beulah Vega made a quick decision.  She bumped one of her actors up from a supporting role to a leading one, eliminated another character, and adjusted Levin’s script as best one could. So how’d they do? The best they could.

Kindly Dr. Cook (Rusty Thompson) is the only physician serving the village of Greenfield, Vermont. It’s a quaint little burg, where everyone seems to be healthy and happy.  Dr. Cook’s protégé, Dr. Jim Tennyson (Nicholas McCook), arrives for a short visit. The townspeople are hoping the Dr. Jim will move back and take over the practice.  But Dr. Jim has been to the big city, and how you gonna keep him down on the farm after he’s seen… Chicago?  A conversation with the Doctor’s Assistant and an examination of the Doctor’s medical records leads Jim to believe that all is not well in Greenfield. Several recent deaths seem awfully unexpected, and why does the Doctor have all that poison in his medicine cabinet?

If one is familiar with Levin’s work (“Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Stepford Wives”, “The Boys from Brazil”), one shouldn’t be surprised at the turn of events in “Dr. Cook’s Garden”.  This was his first attempt at a genre thriller, and it was a resounding flop in its initial 1968 production. It would take 10 years for Levin to hit the jackpot with “Deathtrap”, a far superior work to this one.

Not that Levin’s “Dr. Cook…” is particularly bad, it’s just that it pales in comparison to his other work, and it suffers from the usual ailments of an early work. For example, actions are often compressed to unrealistic times and exposition happens conveniently and rather blatantly. But it is what it is, and the audience I saw it with on opening weekend enjoyed it for what it was – a competently written thriller performed by a troupe of actors doing their damndest to serve their community.

The cast of four is led by Nicholas McCook, who does just fine as the young doctor.  Pegasus regular Michelle Randall is quite good as the Doctor’s stern but compassionate assistant, and fellow Pegasus regular Lois Pearlman appears as the gardener/town constable.  That leaves us with the kindly Dr. Cook.

Keeping in mind the circumstances that found the 30 year old Rusty Thompson (most recently seen as the sidekick in the Spreckels production of “Brigadoon”) as the 70 year old Dr. Cook, I chose to give him a lot of leeway in his work with the role.  Does he completely succeed in his characterization?  No, frankly, he doesn’t, and the first image that might enter one’s mind upon his arrival on stage is that of a drama student wandering in from a high school production of “Mark Twain Tonight!”  Perhaps over the course of the run, a greater attempt at a makeup and hair design that would better support Thompson’s characterization could be made.  Give the guy whatever he needs, because he gives it his all, and there is honor in that.

While Thompson does his best to capture the physicality and vocal intonations of a 70 year old, there were moments that the younger actor couldn’t help but slip through but, come on, he only had eight days of prep before walking out in front of an audience.  Yes, the audience made quiet comments that the old doctor appeared to be younger than the young doctor.  Most were, no doubt, unaware of the casting circumstances, but they were still willing to suspend their disbelief and buy into the premise.  That is a welcoming community.  That is a community that appreciates having the opportunity to see live theatre and cuts their local theatre company some slack. 

It was good enough for the sold-out audience with whom I sat. That’s good enough for me.

Dr. Cook’s Garden

A Pegasus Theater Production

January 24th through February 16th

Evenings Fri, Sat @ 8pm   Matinee Sun @ 2pm

Pegasus Theater at Rio Nido Lodge
4444 Wood Rd
Rio Nido, CA
(707) 583-2343

Photo by Kate Broderson

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