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North Coast Rep plans world premiere of comic fantasy ‘Annabella in July’

Jacquelyn Ritz and Louis Lotorto in North Coast Repertory Theatre's world premiere play "Annabella in July."
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

Playwright Richard Strand said his play was inspired by a road trip he and his wife took to the San Gabriel Mountains

One summer several years ago, Los Angeles playwright Richard Strand was driving through the San Gabriel Mountains with his wife, Mary Lynn, when they got lost and ended up at a huge ski resort that was closed for the summer.

Although it may have been a wrong turn that led the Strands to the deserted mountain lodge, it was also a fortuitous mistake because the journey became the inspiration for his latest play, “Annabella in July,” which opens Wednesday, Sept. 7 in its world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

Playwright Richard Strand
(Courtesy of North Coast Repertory Theatre)

The five-character comic fantasy is set at a California ski resort where a couple in their 40s have come to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in the off-season. When they arrive, a number of strangers at the resort recognize the wife as somebody she is not, and the experience raises questions about self-identity, hopes and dreams.

“It plays with her perception of herself,” Strand said in a recent phone interview. “People have expectations of her. They adore the person they think she is, and she doesn’t feel especially adorable.”

The production will be directed by North Coast artistic director David Ellenstein, who forged a friendship with Strand a few years ago after landing the rights to produce Strand’s “Ben Butler” after a years-long wait. Ellenstein fell in love with “Ben Butler” in 2015, but he spent five years trying to get the rights to produce it from Strand’s licensing agent, who thought a production in San Diego County might compete with any productions in the L.A. area.

Strand was wholly unaware of Ellenstein’s quest for “Ben Butler” until Ellenstein emailed him directly with his request and the deal was finally made. Then the pandemic hit.

“Ben Butler” — about the imagined conversations between Union general Benjamin Butler and runaway slave Shepard Mallory during the Civil War — was finally produced at North Coast last fall, and it was a big hit with audiences. After “Ben Butler” closed, Ellenstein asked Strand if he had any other scripts he’d like to see produced, and one of the plays Strand sent was “Annabella in July.”

Strand’s playwriting career began in 1976, when he was looking for a one-act play to direct in college and decided to write it himself. That short play won two national playwriting awards and, when later expanded to a full-length work, made its premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. In the years since, he has written nearly 20 more plays. “The Bug” and “The Death of Zukasky” premiered at The Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and “The Bug” has been translated into German, Italian, French, Greek and Spanish.

Strand said he finds inspiration for plays in many places. “Ben Butler” was inspired by an article he read about the general’s meeting with Mallory at Fort Monroe, Va., in 1861, where Butler conceived a wartime strategy to save Mallory life. While their meeting is historic fact, the words the men exchanged are lost to history, which offered Strand an exciting opportunity to imagine what they said.

“I was trying to picture that conversation, and I thought there could be a play if I can figure it out,” Strand said. “I look for characters in conflict that have clear motivations.”

When not writing plays — which Strand said come unpredictably in “hot periods” of creativity — he worked for nearly 20 years as a teacher. In June 2020, he retired from his position as chair of the theater department at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.

After agreeing with Ellenstein last December on plans to produce “Annabella in July,” Strand said they both wanted to make some changes to the script. Most of the tinkering is done, but Strand has driven down from his home in Claremont, east of Los Angeles, to attend several rehearsals, examine Marty Burnett’s scenic design plans and watch the actors performing his words. The play stars Louis Lotorto, Jacquelyn Ritz, Leilani Smith, Bruce Turk and Catalina Zelles.

“I’m feeling very optimistic,” he said. “It’s a splendid cast.”

‘Annabella in July’

When: Previews: Wednesday, Sept. 7 through Sept. 9. Opens Sept. 10 and runs through Oct. 2. 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $54-$65

Phone: (858) 481-1055

Online: northcoastrep.org

The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Annabella in July."
The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Annabella in July,” from left, Leilani Smith, Louis Lotorto, Bruce Turk, Jacquelyn Ritz and Catalina Zelles.
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)


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