Welcome to Casa Valentina, a quaint little resort in the Catskills. The year is 1962 and, as the city swelters, weary New Yorkers make their way to the mountains to cool off. The men who travel to Casa Valentina, however, are looking for more than a respite from the heat. In a sense the men are going home to breathe free and be themselves — as women.
This is the setting of Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play, onstage at the Santa Paula Theater Center through July 28. Casa Valentina is based on an actual place in the Catskills called the Chevalier d’Eon (later named Casa Susanna), which catered to crossdressing heterosexual men. As Fierstein wrote, the resort was “paradise for these men — white-collar professionals with wives and children — to spend their weekends discreetly and safely inhabiting their chosen alter egos.”
Indeed, the characters call Casa Valentina their “Garden of Eden,” but as one points out, there is a “snake in the grass.” Their beloved “sorority” is under threat. From what is a matter of opinion.
Onstage, as it was in real life, the hosts are a husband and wife team. Here it is the harried George, who transforms into the self-assured Valentina. His spouse is the almost-always-dutiful Rita. Chip Albers is good as George, but he is all the more commanding as Valentina. Sindy McKay imbues Rita with as much love, courage and acceptance that an outsider in her own life can muster. Rita has a story, to be sure, but Casa Valentina is about what happens when a content secret sorority is rattled by the possibility of exposure.
The guests are mostly regulars, including the Oscar Wilde-quoting Bessie (the female alter ego of Albert), who offers much of the play’s comic relief. Allan Noel gives life to Bessie’s humor and heartache. Doug Friedlander ably gives Terry (Theodore) the bittersweet gravitas she deserves. The confident Gloria (Michael) is played well by Trent Trachtenberg. Ronald Rezac is well cast as Amy (Judge), who must face the repercussions of a years-long secret. Elixeo Flores fully inhabits Charlotte (Isadore), an outsider who comes with a challenging proposition and a thinly veiled threat. The other newcomer is Miranda (Jonathon), whose fragile innocence is brought to light by Michael Adams. Miranda has more important things to learn than just the proper way to apply lipstick. Leslie Ann Vitanza makes a quick but compelling appearance as Amy’s daughter, Eleanor.
Director Fred Helsel helms the ambitious production. Mike Carnahan creates a wonderful set, complete with multiple spaces and levels. Sound designers Helsel and Allan Noel fill the air with nostalgic music to set the right mood. Costumer Barbara Pedziwiatr does an especially good job dressing the men in clothes that celebrate their true selves. Lighting by Gary Richardson evokes the warmth of summer. The well-appointed set is the work of prop master Gail Heck. The fine crew is rounded out by producer Leslie Nichols and stage manager Megan Brister.
The welcomed levity in Casa Valentina comes in the way good friends enjoy each other’s company. At its heart, however, Casa Valentina is more serious than that, as it addresses intolerance, shame and the pain of secrets held and revealed. At its best, and when it is most effective, Casa Valentina puts aside the speeches and lets its characters lead from the heart.
Casa Valentina through July 28 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For more information, call 805-525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.