April Ann

Hale Centre Theatre West Valley’s “April Ann,” written by Ruth and Nathan Hale, is such an odd play that it’s hard to know whether to like it or not.

Set in the Canadian Rockies in the 1950s, the title character (played by Sheralyn Pratt; double-cast with Marissa Young) is a headstrong, masculine gal who takes care of her grandmother and siblings on a small ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Suddenly, two men enter the picture. One is Art (Porter Brinton/Mark Dietlein), a fur trapper with a too-frequently used unconvincing laugh who requires a mere five seconds to prove himself a chauvinist.

The other is Larry (Bret Wheadon/Sanford K. Porter), a genteel pilot whose plane has crashed nearby and who now spends his time doing things for the hopelessly ignorant Pritchard family like build them a shower and put a door on the outhouse.

Naturally, April Ann falls for Art, the more loutish of the two, even though he frustrates her. She can’t decide if she should just be who she is — a tree-felling, fur-trapping tom-boy — or if she should be feminine. She seems to change her mind on the matter every few minutes or so, which suggests she’s more feminine than she realizes. (Pardon me.)

The Pritchard family consists of April Ann, her grandmother (Ruth Hale), and three younger siblings. All of them are ignorant, uncouth, vile, boorish, antisocial, backward, deviant, and lazy — but in a lovable sort of way. Furthermore, Grandma wants the family to stay dumb as they are, and she doesn’t want Larry teaching them high-falutin’ things like reading and dental hygiene.

Adding to the weirdness is the fact that we’re told that just after they were married, Grandma and Grandpa Pritchard hiked up to these woods, carved out a homestead, and started having, um, grandchildren. One would assume there must have been regular children in the middle there, but no mention is ever made as to what became of these children’s parents, or why the kids are living with their grandparents now. Considering Grandma says she’s never left the homestead, and neither has anyone else (except Grandpa, who wanders off for months at a time), you have to wonder what’s going on here.

Did I mention the show is odd?

This is a musical, with about 20 songs — or, rather, 19 reprises of what sounds like the same song, with tunes and orchestrations lifted either from a John Denver TV special or the Country Bear Jamboree. The lyrics are negligible; one could argue quite convincingly that the play doesn’t need any songs at all, although they’re all mercifully short and everyone who sings them does so with strong voices.

The play drags quite a bit, considering how brief the plot really is. There are some genuinely funny moments, mostly based on the family’s complete disregard for all things civilized and decent. Mostly the play just sort of plods along, though, never reaching much of a climax, but never getting too dull, either.

Ruth Hale, matriarch of the vast Hale Centre Theatre empire, is a charming old gal, to be sure. She gets applause when she first comes onstage, and she gets a standing ovation at the end, even though she’s not the main character and probably isn’t even the best actor in the show. Her popularity, like the popularity of this play, is somewhat inexplicable: You like them both, even if you can’t put your finger on why.

Ah, so many wonderful odd moments in this show. Like when April Ann puts on her grandmother's filthy wedding dress (with boots, of course), whores herself up in the makeup department, and dances an odd dance for Art. Or when the entire family (and the first row of the audience) takes a shower for the first time, and Grandma has to be forced into it. Watching an old lady being forced to take a shower is something you just don't see often enough in live theater.

And that whole deal with the grandparents/grandchildren. It makes no sense. The kids are all brothers and sisters, we know that. None of them are cousins. They all have the same parents. But the old lady and her husband are clearly their grandparents, not their parents. So who were their parents, and what happened to them? Even if the old couple had a kid -- a daughter, say -- whom would she have married? No one ever comes to the homestead, and no one from the family ever leaves. What a weird situation.

A cast member informed me by e-mail many months after this was published how that discrepancy came to be. When Ruth Hale wrote the play in the '50s, the grandmother role was a MOTHER role, and Ruth Hale herself played it. She got attached to the part, and continued to play it over the years. After a while, she no longer looked like a mother, so they changed the part to "grandmother" and added one line to justify it. The person who wrote me the e-mail said it's entirely possible Ruth Hale forgot to say that particular line the night I was there (acting with Ruth Hale is always an adventure, because you're never sure which lines she's going to say), but that after my review came out, she made sure to emphasize it big-time.