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THEATER: ‘Quartet’ opens at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater


Growing older, as they say, is not for the faint hearted.

In Cinnabar Theater’s new comedy “Quartet,” by playwright Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”), aging is only one of the challenges facing a famous foursome of onetime opera singers. They also have to deal with each other, and two of them used to be married. Adding to the frequently funny comic tension, the singers – all residents of a posh retirement home for musicians – have been asked to reunite to sing their career-defining four-part musical passage from “Rigoletto,” at a celebration of Verdi’s birthday.

“I like the way the play treats the process of growing older,” says Jereme Anglin, who is directing “Quartet” for the acclaimed Petaluma theater company, itself long associated with opera, having staged at least one opera a year for most of its 40-plus years of operation. Of the new play, Anglin adds, “I like how it talks about what it’s like to be an artist who can no longer do the thing they are best known for.”

To bring “Quartet” to life, Anglin has assembled an all-star cast of Sonoma County actors – Laura Jorgensen, Liz Jahren, Clark Miller, and Michael Fontaine - who, taken as a group, have literally hundreds of plays behind them, many of those having been staged at Cinnabar. During a break at a recent rehearsal, the actors take a moment to describe the experience of playing characters who, are both very different from themselves, and often very similar.

“Unlike me, my character, Jean, doesn’t want to be there, not at all,” laughs Jorgensen (whose last show at Cinnabar was 2014’s “Driving Miss Daisy”). “Jean is the diva, and she resists that whole part of aging, the part where you can’t quite do your art anymore at the level you once did it. That’s for other people to face, not for her.”

Jean, she explains, tends to cling to the past in a way that’s not healthy for her.

Adds Jorgensen, “That’s so clearly not what I want to do, as a person, as I get older. The past in the past. The present is the present.”

Fontaine (“Tomfoolery!”) agrees.

In the role of Reginald, a gentle fellow prone to sudden outbursts of profanity, Fontaine is one of the only members of the cast who’s actually appeared in and directed operas.

“Well, I’ve been a musical theater singer who’s expanded to do some opera,” he allows, “and I’ve felt pretty comfortable with the few that I’ve done. But I’m still a student of what it means to sing opera.”

With the exception of Reginald’s unpredictably foul mouth, it’s a character Fontaine says he identifies with, and not just for the operatic experience.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found something that my character has also found,” he explains. “At one point Reginald says, ‘I’ve liked getting older, because all the petty jealousies and ambitions, it all falls away. It’s not important anymore. I can let it go, and just get on with today.’ I have found that to be so true. Things that years ago would have angered me, they don’t bother me so much. I like that, and I identify with that. I’m enjoying letting things go.”

“Each of the characters in this play embodies their own strategies for dealing with age,” suggests Clark Miller (“Of Mice and Men”). “My first reaction was, ‘What a funny play!’” he acknowledges. “But as we’ve been working on it, I’ve found it to have quite a bit of depth. Yes, it’s about coming to terms with aging and mortality, but it’s also about coming to terms with your past, things you did wrong, and now have to find a way to accept.”

On another level, adds Jahren (“Always Patsy Cline”) ‘Quartet’ is about the past and the present, and whatever it is that’s to come.

“It’s about how the glories of our past are present in our future,” she says, adding that she identifies with her character, Cecily, on a very deep personal level.

“We have a lot in common,” she says. “She never married, she never had kids. There’s this thing hanging over her, this ‘What will I do when I’m older’ thing. I think about that. I’m serious, if there were a place like this around here, a home for retired actors in Sonoma County, I’d totally end up there. Cecily’s had a wonderful, adventurous early life, and in a lot of ways, she still does, but she’s starting to slip into dementia, and she’s spending more time in her past.”

That’s a part of the story Jahren finds most moving, because Cecily’s friends all rally around her, working to keep her growing lapses a secret from everyone else.

“This is a play about friendship, really,” Jahren says. “These people irritate each other, but they love each other. Cecily says at one point, ‘We consider ourselves a rather exclusive club.’ They’ve made a little home and family for themselves, and it’s really a wonderful thing.”

That’s said, the play is not sentimental about aging.

“It tells the truth,” says Miller. “Aging comes with some really unpleasant pieces.”

That said, Harwood’s play also suggests that, on occasion, aging can sometimes be wonderful.

Says Jahren, “This play shows us how growing old can be done with grace, artistry and love. What’s not wonderful about that?”

NOTE: As of Thursday, Cinnabar Executive Director says the show will go on, as planned. “Our doors are opne, and we will have a show this weekend. ‘Quartet’ is a play about a resilient little community supporting one another, and as a community undergoing a very difficult situation, we believe there is no better time to come together as neighbors and friends to share an uplifiting, funny life-affirming story.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)