Not ready for the curtain call

Southwest theater veterans pack a punch with new play, ‘Exit Strategy’

When all five of them gather on stage, they represent more than 300 years in the theater, with more than 800 productions behind them. The combined talent and experience of this venerable group of Twin Cities theater folks is awe-inspiring. Until someone cracks a slyly naughty joke and the spell is broken. Almost.

Bill Semans and Roy M. Close wrote the play “Exit Strategy,” which debuts at Mixed Blood Theater this month. Howard Dallin directs it. And Semans, Shirley Venard, and Charles Nolte bring it to life. Nearly everyone involved in the production has seen 60 come and go. (“We brought in a kid of 55 to do the lighting design,” Close quips.) And yet, in at least one way, this is some of the most innovative theater you’ll see in the Twin Cities this year. Just how innovative? As Semans points out, this is the only script he’s seen with a reference to stool softener.

The groups’ ties together go back decades, a tangled map of 40-plus years of the Twin Cities and national theater scenes. All live in Southwest with the exception of Nolte.

Semans cast Venard in his very first production at the Cricket Theater, which he founded in 1968. He was a student in Nolte’s theater classes at the University of Minnesota in 1964. Close remembers, “Charles and I go back to when our daughters were in 5th grade together.” After a rehearsal in March, in an old North Minneapolis industrial building, one memory leads to another and there are simultaneous discussions about whether a particular production was 35 or 36 years ago and just who was in what show.

But the play they have put together is a signal to all of us that they’re just not done yet.

Semans and Close wrote the script with these three actors in mind. The Penley Hotel — “Not the sort of place you’d want to live,” Close notes — is about to be torn down and its unhappy residents will lose their homes. James, played by Nolte, is an opinionated atheist and not-so-closeted homosexual who has lived for six years in uneasy détente with Venard’s character, May, a devout Catholic with a farm girl’s frank mouth.

“There is a lot of laughter in there, but none of it is intentional,” Close says.

Then Alex, played by Semans, comes along to offer the two a chance to do something entirely new to them, although not entirely legal. And “Exit Strategy” the play offers “all these people who thought they were done with theater” — as Nolte describes some of the cast and crew — another chance.

“The production mirrors the play,” Close says. “This is our way of challenging ourselves…. And our goal is not just to do this, but to do it really well.”

“We hope the play will have a life beyond this production,” Semans adds.

Semans is the one cracking the jokes, more often than not. And, more often than not, it’s the sort of thing he might not be allowed to say on prime time television. When he himself is the butt of his own joke, it usually has something to do with “keeling over” — a ridiculous thought when you see his slim figure charging around the stage in jeans and Rockports.

Nolte moves slowly. At 84, he’s been in theater for more than 70 years. (And all this time he’s never had to audition for a part, he notes with a particular mix of pride and humility.) His big, slow smile suits his large frame. His character, James, is a “poof,” as the actors joke: a homosexual man who wonders whether he might really have been able to tell his family his secret. When Alex asks what he really wants in life, half wistful, half wry, James answers, “I suppose a slender blond lad’s out of the question?”

Venard plays May, a South Dakota farm girl who uses some rough barnyard vernacular at least once in the play. She is tall, wearing Katherine Hepburn trousers and a turtleneck sweater in understated browns. Before the rehearsal begins, she explains drily, “I’m not drunk. I have a little balance problem. It’s not that they got the last dregs of the actors.” When she has to repeat a difficult bit of the scene — getting up from a chair several times — she jibes, “Next time I’m bringing my doctor.”

Close and Semans threw out their first attempt at a script two years ago. But a public reading at the Jungle Theater on Lyndale earlier this year drew a large audience within the local theater community and a very positive response.

“We focused on making characters real as older people,” Close explains. “We were afraid of doing a play with cute old people saying sarcastic things and one of them would die at the end.” (Nobody’s giving away the surprise ending, but given the writers’ attitudes toward that sort of thing, it’s a safe bet nobody dies at the end.)

As for the homosexuality and the swearing, Close says, “I don’t think there’s anything in there that older people haven’t thought about before.”

“What the hell is the point to saying it’s time to stop looking for new challenges?” Semans asks. “The point is to drive toward something you really want and if you drop dead in the process, oh well. We wanted this to be beautiful, because we are all going to keel over when it’s done.”

Tricia Cornell edits Minnesota Good Age.