As the Little Theatre of Savannah's board of directors put together the group's 60th season, they chose an opening play that would both touch the heart and tickle the funny bone: Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods, the story of an unmarried young Italian-American man and his four meddling grandparents.
A funny thing happened on the way to rehearsals.
Director Grace Diaz Tootle held auditions and found a quartet of fine amateur performers to play the grandparents, all of whom are in their 70s in DiPietro's play.
"Every single person that could've played those roles was either having knee surgery, or hip surgery, or was going out of town, or had to stay home because their spouse was having surgery," Diaz chuckles. "It just wasn't the right time."
Tootle hopes to bring back Over the River for next year's season, but in the meantime, a replacement had to found, tout de suite.
"We wanted something that was funny and had good appeal to a broad audience, to our audience which is a broad age range," she says. "A show that was witty and sharp but relatively clean, and would be a good season opener."
A visit to the archives of Neil Simon, community theater's go-to guy, resulted in the 1969 comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Under Tootle's direction, this comic perennial will officially open the Little Theatre of Savannah season Thursday at the Freight Station, which has become the organization's new home.
It's the story of nebbishy Barney Cashman and his attempts to have "flings" with three women. In typical Simon fashion, while the dialogue is fast and snappy, and the characters bizarre but believable, things don't go exactly Barney's way.
"When you read the synopsis of the show, it talks about how Barney Cashman is trying to participate in the Sexual Revolution," Tootle points out. "But I don't see it that way at all. I think that's what they used to get people interested in the show, because it was written during the Sexual Revolution.
"This show is really about a man who feels like his life has been never anything more than ordinary. And so he sets out to do something, once in his life, so that when he dies he will have that memory of having done something that wasn't just ordinary. That he didn't just have a ‘nice life.'
"But he's bad at it! So he tries three times, with three different women, and he fails miserably every single time."
While Tootle has been involved with the Little Theatre since the late 1980s, she's also worked extensively with the Savannah Community Theatre, the Savannah Children's Theatre and the late, lamented City Lights troupe ("I'm kind of like a mercenary," she laughs). She is both a director and an actress.
The theater will celebrate 60 years in operation next June (it has been based in several locations over the years, and for a time was known as the Savannah Theatre Company).
Then, as now, aspiring thespians from all walks of local life volunteer their time and talents to "put on a show."
Justin Kent, who plays Barney in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, has been directed by Tootle before, in the plays The Nerd and Crimes of the Heart.
"He's just a very charming and talented young man," Tootle says. "And he's got a great comedic wit, and great timing, and great facial expressions.
"He plays the character, the guy that's inept, that wants to be bad but really can't be, so perfectly. I think it's a little bit of him in real life, to tell you the truth."
She has nothing but praise for the entire Red Hot cast. "Justin's the main thing onstage, but we've got some of Savannah's best actresses in this show," she enthuses. "People should know that."
‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers'
Where: Freight Station, 703D Louisville Road
When: At 8 p.m. Sept. 24-26, Oct. 1, 2, 4, 8-10; at 3 p.m. Sept. 27, Oct. 3 and 11
Tickets: $22 adults, $17 age 55 and over, military and students; $12 age 12 and under
Phone: (912) 631-3773