Arts and Entertainment

'The Connoisseurs': Local play wins national spotlight

Top photo from left: Lisa Moretti, Bo Turnage, Margaret Hall, George Iliff, star in
Top photo from left: Lisa Moretti, Bo Turnage, Margaret Hall, George Iliff, star in 'The Connoisseurs,' by local playwright Ed Strum, at San Juan Community Theatre. Bottom photo from left: Meredith Block, Lisa Moretti, Bo Turnage.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

The scene opens on domestic normality. A wife fixes dinner, a husband chooses the wine. It is a normality, however, soon to be disrupted by events involving a certain boat sinking in the bay outside.

Thus begins “The Connoisseurs,” Ed Strum’s comedy which opens Friday at San Juan Community Theatre. The performance of the play marks an important milestone for the theater. “The Connoisseurs” is the first locally written, full-length play to be staged in SJCT.

The comedy takes place in the Pacific Northwest beach home of George and Lynn. The plot begins when a boat sinks in the waters in front of their house, and cases of fine wine float ashore.

Merritt Olsen, director of “The Connoisseurs,” says he’s delighted to showcase local talent. “I had another play that I was thinking of doing and it didn’t gel, so I called Ed up asking if he would consider working on [“The Connoisseurs”] over a short period of time,” Olsen says.

The performance may have been pulled together quickly, but the content of Strum’s play has been developing for three or four years now. The piece began life as a 17-page, one-act play for the 2004 Islands Playwrights Festival.

The inspiration to develop “The Connoisseurs” into a full-length work came in 2009-10. “Times were getting pretty grim then,” Strum says, referring to the recession. “I thought, what the world needs right now is to laugh ... so I pulled out this one-act ... You would hardly recognize it [from the first draft] it's changed so much."

Strum says he has learned a lot about the process of a play's evolution, and that it is not a solo effort. "It wasn't until I started working with Merritt that the characters really developed. It's important to work with someone, particularly a good director, who can push back. The result is that the play moves on to a more quality development." Working by yourself, Strum says, means you can only take a play so far.

Strum's efforts have earned him rewards already. "The Connoisseurs" won the 2010 Robert J. Pickering Award for Playwriting Excellence and premiered at the historic Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, Mich., in March.

Olsen hopes this sparks a culture of full-length local theater in Friday Harbor. "That's one of the reason we're doing it, primarily it is for the entertainment but I would like it if we could get more people to take the next step."

The theater is also hosting a range of after-show talks. On July 24, there will be an after-show talk with the cast. Audience members can stay in the Whittier and ask questions of the writer, director, cast and crew.

On Aug. 1, there will be a discussion with American Gem Society Jewelers Philip Burton and Charles Yousling of Burton Jewelers in Anacortes. They will talk about how diamonds are formed, recovered and cut, and will introduce some famous historical diamonds, a few of which are mentioned in the play.

Finally on Aug. 13, there will be wine-tasting and discussion with San Juan Vineyards’ Yvonne Swanberg and winemaker Chris Primus. They will detail a brief history of their wine-making and provide samples of their award-winning wines.

Tickets for the show are $18 for adults; $9 for student reserved, with $5 RUSH at the door. A discount Dinner Theatre Package with Coho Restaurant is available via the box office.

— Cast: George Iliff and Margaret Hall portray George and Lynn, Lisa Moretti and Bo Turnage portray their friends and neighbors. Pat Rishel is the snoopy neighbor, Warren Baehr is the wine owner, Meredith Block is a Coast Guard officer, Gene Bornholdt is the sheriff, Roberto Carrieri is “Mr. Big.”

— Show times: July 23-24, 8 p.m.; July 31, 8 p.m.; Aug. 1, 5 p.m.; Aug. 6-7, 13-14, 8 p.m.

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