By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
The combination of a mystery, ability to right a possible wrong, attempts to fool an overbearing mother plus hint of romance add up to a delightful holiday comedy playing through Dec. 22 in Poway.
“A Christmas Cactus” presented by PowPAC, Poway’s Community Theatre, has the perfect mix of talented actors who ably portray the skills and comedic timing needed, plus an enjoyable script and appropriate stage setting and costuming.
The play written by Eliot Byerrum has the flavor of hard-nosed private detectives of decades past, but in this case the detective is a slightly cynical, matter-of-fact type of woman, Cactus O’Riley (Rhiannon M. Jones). She is considering giving up her agency of a year, but not excited about the alternative — working for the district attorney’s office as an investigator.
Her sidekick is secretary Fred Booker (Craig Merker), an optimistic and possibly bit naive young man who wants to keep the agency open.
On a Christmas Eve in Los Angeles — the year is never revealed, but could be the ‘40s, ‘50s or present day reflecting a bygone era — Cactus and Fred are ready to close up for the holidays when taken hostage by two escaped convicts, Neville Smedley (Michael Adler) and Ramon Ramirez (Randy Coull).
Neville arrives wanting to see Jake Marley, the detective whom he claims framed him for embezzling the city. Learning he has died and Cactus has taken over, Neville demands she go through the files and prove his innocence.
Ramon, in custody for being an illegal immigrant, seized the opportunity to escape when their prison bus got into an accident. He just wants to be reunited with his pregnant wife. His background in literature, especially his love of Charles Dickens, has the potential to shed light on the mystery.
Confounding the situation is the sudden appearance of Fred’s overbearing mother, Adelaide (Shirley Coggon), who is not permitted to leave, but cannot learn the truth. All involved must make her believe this is a surprise mystery party set up for her and not a hostage situation with a real crime to solve.
Further complicating the situation is the arrival of deputy district attorney Stuart Windsor (Daniel Sky), who holds a torch for Cactus, wants her to work for him and quickly realizes Neville and Ramon’s true identities.
All but Merker — in his stage debut — are PowPAC veterans. Jones and Sky appeared last summer as the romantic leads in “Getting Sara Married.” It’s been awhile since Adler, Coggon and Coull graced the PowPAC stage, in Coull’s case almost 10 years.
Jones seems perfectly cast for this type of role, which seems similar to her portrayal of Sara last summer. Sky is also well-suited and plays an intoxicated man believably. Last time his character had bouts of amnesia. Since their portrayals in both shows are similar, this reviewer looks forward to seeing them return to the PowPAC stage, but in roles that let them demonstrate their full range of acting abilities.
Booker is successful in carefully walking the line between being annoying (as called for) and an annoyance to the audience. Adler and Coull found the right balance between being intimidating, gun-totting thugs and likeable, sympathetic fellows.
Merker seemed a bit stiff and pretentious, but given his acting inexperience did a remarkable job in keeping pace with his well-seasoned cast mates. A few more plays should help him be more natural on the stage.
“A Christmas Cactus” can be seen at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 22 at PowPAC, on the second floor of the Lively Center, 13250 Poway Road in Poway. An elevator can be accessed from the parking area behind the building.
Tickets are $15. To purchase, contact the PowPAC box office at 858-679-8085 or firstname.lastname@example.org.