No offense to actors or schizophrenics, but sometimes the difference between the stage and the mental ward is closer than most people might think. Cheryl Weaver is arguably the most successful of Northeast Kansas actresses, moving easily from film roles to voiceover work to theater productions. She's performed at every Kansas City theater, and usually goes right from one role to the next. Lately, though, the parts have literally come one on top of another.
Earlier this year, she was in the evocative and sexually voracious Unicorn production of "The Closer." She then switched gears and went to the New Theater, where she played farcical comedy alongside Michael ("The Waltons") Learned in "Social Security." Before that show wrapped, she found herself in day rehearsals for The Coterie Theater's latest children's adaptation of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book, "Little House by the Shores of Silver Lake."
So how does the actress, who is also a wife and mother, pull it off? Let's just say she makes very good use of her time.
"There's time between shows, and before a show you put on your make-up and costume, there's time to get into character," Weaver says. "Then there is always time in the car commuting, switching mental gears. You can accomplish a lot in your car."
So if commuters happen to see a woman going through physical preparation in her car, zooming at 70 miles per hour down K-10, that's probably just Weaver centering herself, focusing on the job at hand. Nothing for which she has to see a therapist. Not yet, anyway.
"Closer" proved a big draw, with its staged, passionless, almost cruel coupling and uncoupling of the characters. "Social Security," involved intricate comedic timing. Since The Coterie specializes in children's productions, many theatergoers are apt to dismiss it as a kiddie production, but the genre involves its own specialized staging especially since the troupe is venturing into the dark side with this latest production.
OK, not really, but it's a bit more serious than most 9-year-old audience members are used to seeing.
"It's all about Laura Ingalls' life, and in the middle of it is a more serious chapter, as her sister Mary goes blind. That has to be addressed," Weaver says.
But dealing with a solemn subject before restless elementary schoolers is only one obstacle to overcome. The playwright has to adapt the material to make it more visual, and colorful for the audience, using props and costumes that are authentic, and also audience-friendly. The pacing must move, with the actors staying on cue. There are also issues involved in using children in the cast, balancing the length of time that they can work versus time allotted for school and family responsibilities.
"The girls are 17, 15 and 11, but they have a lot of energy, and they're serious about what they are doing," Weaver says. "The time commitment is tremendous. But they have 10 times more energy than I do."
Weaver's role is the mother Caroline, and it's her second time playing the part. Last year's production was lighter and more musical, this one calls for a more sober production. Coming off a play like "Social Security," also meant Weaver had to shift her focus in conjunction.
"Since this one is so much more serious, I can't tell what the response will be like," she says. "This is quite different stuff. The children recognize human behavior, and you have to act it quite truthfully and realistically," she says "This year is a darker tract, tempered by what we can offer young children."
Weaver knows in this one that it's not the up-front, in-your-face role that "Closer" brought her. That's okay, because she recognizes that it's Laura who is the star of the series.
"The kids always love Laura and her sister Mary," she says. "Girls come in groups; scout troops, school groups. The girls playing Laura and Mary always get stacks and stacks of mail."
Despite all their professional skills, there are some things that the actors just have to fake in order to pull off the "Little House" productions. An infant is called for in the script, and since babies in the acting union are hard to come by, and even harder to put up with, Weaver swaddles a doll in thick blankets and carries it in such a way that prying audience eyes can't tell the difference.
Then there is the dog problem. One of the most popular series characters is the family dog, Jack. The cast has a maliciously wonderful solution around that one.
"We took care of it," Weaver laughs. "In this one we tell them that Jack has died."
Okay, so maybe the Coterie group could use a little therapy.