Arts and Entertainment

'The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch' opens Thursday

Women in the town kibbitz about Sneaky; from left, Julia Smith, Sandy Baird, Susan Schirmer, Melody Rice and Linda Guernsey. - Journal photos / James Krall
Women in the town kibbitz about Sneaky; from left, Julia Smith, Sandy Baird, Susan Schirmer, Melody Rice and Linda Guernsey.
— image credit: Journal photos / James Krall

Clearly, there’s something rotten in Den ... — er, Gopher Gulch. The townspeople are all upset. Sneaky Fitch, that loathsome, low-down, no-good so-and-so, just won’t die. Even when they conspire with the local doctor to “do something” about the problem, Sneaky Fitch just won’t stay dead.

Funny thing, life. It has a way of hanging on, even in places it shouldn’t. Would someone, somewhere please turn the lights out on this Sneaky Fitch character?

Such are the desperate wishes of Gopher Gulch, somewhere — anywhere — out in the Very Old West. Distill every western character cliché to its essential caricature and then raise it to an exponent: that’s what you get in this summer’s San Juan Community Theater send-up of “The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch,” by James L. Rosenberg.

Popular on dinner theater circuits, this is the first offering from island newcomer, director Jane Maxwell Campbell, who brings more than a working knowledge of this play and theater in general to San Juan Community Theatre’s Whittier Stage.

This is the fourth time in 30 years Campbell has directed the play.

“I seem to be going on a 10-year cycle,” Campbell said. “I first directed this play with a community theater in California in 1978.” She directed it again in 1988 and 1998, “and now this,” she said.

The stylized tragi-comedy western farce centers around the exploits of the town’s low-down, good for nuthin’ drunk, Sneaky Fitch, played admirably by Scott George. His “Wanted” signs were present for the Fourth of July Parade though town and rumor has it he’s been seen near the post office, hiding behind a two-tone beard reminiscent of Billy Gibbons or Dusty Hill, minus the sunglasses.

“Sneaky doesn’t play by any rules. Ever. And you gotta play by a few rules,” George said of his character. “I’m not playing by anybody’s rules, I’m just havin’ fun. That’s my redeeming quality. Hell, that’s my redeeming quality in real life.”

Greg Hertel’s character, the likewise drunken Doc Burch, makes a half-hearted attempt to finish Sneaky off early in the first act, but it just won’t take because his heart’s not in it.

“He’s bad for business. He’s driving away customers,” Hertel said. “Who wants to come to a picturesque western town like this when there’s somethin’ like him around?”

“Yeah. I’m ruinin’ all the picturesqueness,” George said.

“It kind of sounds like Friday Harbor at times,” Hertel said. “People are concerned because this is a town that we want to have people come to. And a guy like him doesn’t fit in. He’s a bum, he’s a coward. And we (the townspeople) kinda go a little too far.”

For newcomer Dana Rice, a familiar face at Classic Cab, appearing on stage is a marked departure from what he’s accustomed to.

“I read somewhere that when you reach a certain age, you’re supposed to step outside of your comfort zone and try something different,” Rice said. “This is so far out of my comfort zone and it’s totally different. I’m having a ball doing it.”

Campbell singled out Rice for incredible growth in the process of bringing the play to fruition. “The metamorphosis has been wonderful to watch,” Campbell said. “He’s truly a shy guy. I just said to him, ‘You have such presence with the white hair. You look like you could be an evangelist.’ He has worked so hard and asked questions and has really not been afraid to take risks.”

It’s also a first play for Sandy Baird who, despite not having any lines, seems to be getting the hang of this acting thing.

“When you look at her throughout the play, she’s always working her character,” Campbell said.

Campbell, a former high school drama teacher from a small boarding school near Santa Barbara, clearly has the directing people thing down cold. This is familiar territory, with so many details already taken care of so Campbell can turn her attention to her cast.

They’ve become really, really close. “I see directing theater (as) teaching self esteem to people who happen to be actors,” , Campbell said.

Campbell brings a firmness to her direction — born of working so long with high school students — and an insistence on safety and respect.

George said this play has been unlike any other he’s been in. “She’s so fun to work with, it’s like not being directed,” he said of Campbell. “And yet she sneaks in being a good director. She’s like a combination of a control freak and somebody who just wants to go out and have a (good time).”

There is a definite playfulness back stage before their rehearsal — how could there not be with Lisa Moretti back there all clad in black leather playing with guns? Moretti plays Rackham, the fastest gun in the West, and it’s actually her character that begins to act as a catalyst for Fitch’s character’s eventual (and certain) redemption.

“BLAM!” goes Moretti’s six-shooter as this hapless reporter strolls into the women’s dressing room looking for a quote.

“I had to try it once,” Moretti explained with a wry smile. “Don’t tell anybody,” she said as she headed for the stage, “but The Fastest Gun in the West has made her first shot.”

For others in the cast, like Diana Stepita, appearing in the play as a saloon girl is simply an opportunity to dress up in period costume.

“I wanted to work with Jane,” Stepita said. “I think that was a good reason to do it. She did such a wonderful job on the set for ‘Music Man.’ She did an amazing job. That’s why I did it, to work with Jane — and to work in funny clothes.”

“The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch” is sponsored by Whidbey Island Bank. It opens Thursday at 8 p.m. and shows two successive Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There is also a 5 p.m. Sunday performance Aug. 3.

Tickets for all shows are $15 for adults, $8 for student reserved, with $5 student RUSH available one hour before each show.

The SJCT box office is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and one hour before each performance. Call 378-3210.

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