Do you love the 1940s? The music, the dresses and hats, the pay phones and jukeboxes? The idea of a local watering hole where regulars come on a rainy night not just to drink but to dance romantically and to share their stories and get a little support from one another?
And do you also embrace that the wonderful trappings of that decade also included the never-changing human condition: violence in the home with blame of the victim; alcoholism; love and pregnancy outside the bounds of a traditional mom-and-pop relationship; an engagement doomed to go wrong; an affair; and the wisdom of elders?
In other words, do you understand a congregation whose religion is to welcome each other as they come in from the rain? There’s a reason for those coat hooks by the door.
Then welcome to the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar in Newark, delightfully recreated for you at the Chatham Drama Guild on Crowell Road through May 26. You, as a member of the audience, can even buy a drink and sit at a table so close to the stage that you can feel you’re part of the action (or not – there’s plenty of traditional seating, too.)
“Happy Birthday,” according to director Anna Marie Johansen, was written at the request of Helen Hayes by Anita Loos, who also wrote “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Theater legend, writes Johansen in her director’s notes, says the play was intended “for the famed dramatic actress to help her break out of a string of serious roles and show her audiences she could also have fun…There is no deep message. No revenge is taken for the death of a loved one. …This is not even one of those coming-of-age stories; everyone here is already of an age.”
One “age” is beautifully depicted by Sheila Jamieson and Karen McPherson as the two well-seasoned women who have some fun watching, and even abetting, some of the soap operas going on within the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar, complete with a matte of New York City in the background.
The Chatham Drama Guild production features plenty of good performances. Without meaning to leave out many other terrific turns, it would be good to shout out Garry Mitchell (“The Judge”); Jean Copeland (whose character’s birthday gives the play its title); and Jessica Keefe as Addie, the character who says, as she learns some new things about herself, “Anybody can have a birthday…Happy birthday to me!” It would have been fine if the whole cast, having begun the great swing anthem “Sing, Sing, Sing,” would have sung and danced to the last echo of the last note of Benny Goodman’s best.
“Happy Birthday” was produced originally by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1946. Too bad they didn’t write lots of music for it. Imagine: a woman is in love with a man whose wife has the same birthday as hers. They can’t celebrate any holidays together, not even Yom Kippur, “where he has to fast and I don’t because I’m Protestant.”
But speaking of music, one attraction of this performance includes the intermission piano solos of Glenn Starner-Tate, who offers many appropriate songs. His autobiographical performance, “My Music and Me,” and his ministry of music at the Federated Church of Orleans have described his own relationship with music and divinity.
“Happy Birthday” at the Chatham Drama Guild is directed by Anna Marie Johansen, costumed by Pam Banas, lighted by Scott Hamilton, with sound design by Don Howell. “Perhaps,” Johansen writes in the program, “if we go back to Ms. Hayes’s original intention—to celebrate ourselves—we each will take away our own meaning…Now it’s your turn to say, ‘Happy Birthday to me!’”
In a previous interview with The Chronicle, Johansen, who moved to Chatham in 2017, said that she “didn’t even know there was theater here” until she met Karen McPherson, who has been performing on the peninsula since 1996. “Karen taught me the ropes,” said Johansen, who is a classically trained singer.
“There is a spiritual component to directing,” Johansen told The Chronicle, because “you see connections among people.” In addition to giving time to her theater work, she has served on the dock committee for the Chatham Yacht Club and as a volunteer at the library.
At the Chatham Drama Guild
Through May 26, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m.
Information and reservations: 508-945-0510, chathamdramaguild.org