Aging and loneliness aren’t concepts normally found in a stage comedy, but in “Push- Pull,” Camarillo resident Helene Cohen’s new play, which is making its world premiere at Studio Channel Islands in Camarillo, both are treated with tenderness and humor in a sweet-natured production featuring a cast of skilled local theater veterans.
Cohen is a treasured doyenne on the Ventura County theater scene, having moved here for the latest chapter in a career that has seen her perform in Los Angeles, Israel, Hawaii and San Diego.
“Push-Pull” is Cohen’s fourth writing effort to be produced. She toiled on the script for some three years before finally bringing it to the stage, and the result is a sweetly entertaining examination of how recently widowed seniors deal with grief, encroaching loneliness and ultimately getting back into the dating game.
Cohen stars as Shirley Snyder, whose longtime husband has recently passed away. While exercising at her local gym, she meets Elliot Friedman, a 70-year-old who has also lost his spouse. “Push-Pull” traces their tentative relationship, urged on by their best friends Harriet and Harvey (the “push”) and resisted by their grown children (the “pull”).
As Shirley, Cohen evokes the gentle nobility of Jessica Tandy, another esteemed actress who excelled during her “golden years” on the stage. After initially giving Elliot the brush-off, Shirley cautiously agrees to become his partner in a tennis doubles match and then invites him to enroll in a bridge class that she teaches at a local senior center.
Elliot is just as gun-shy as Shirley, fearful of his temple’s “casserole brigade,” desperate widows who descend on any single man they come across.
After some weeks, their tentative relationship begins to blossom, but objections are raised by their children, who resent the invasion of a stranger into a position formerly held by a beloved, departed parent.
Cohen’s script deftly deals with this dilemma in an honest, understanding way, with unforced dialogue and clever but believable laugh lines.
Shirley and Elliot’s relationship touches on a multitude of feelings, including anger at the departed spouse for dying, feelings of disloyalty, and concern over their children’s objections to a stranger replacing a deceased parent.
Howard Leader is endearing as Elliot, a gentle man who is out of practice in the art of dating and clumsily pursues Shirley until she pushes back.
Both are urged on by their colorful best friends: Harriet, played by Kathleen Silverman, and Harvey, played by Larry Swartz.
Silverman is an expert at filling out colorful characters, and her Harriet is no exception. She comes to the gym to escape her “couch potato” husband but spends most of her time at the snack bar.
Swartz’s Harvey is a would-be Lothario who views women as a conquest.
Cohen’s writing elevates Harriet and Harvey from being one-dimensional second bananas to true friends who offer sage advice and support.
Much of the humor is supplied by Kimberly Prendergast, Anthony Baldonado, Sharon Reinhold and Penni T. Blum, who play Shirley and Elliot’s angstridden children, adults ensconced in their own hectic lives of kids, carpools and soccer games, with no time to deal with the needs of their parents.
In a brilliantly staged scene, Shirley and Elliot have a nightmare with their children appearing as zombies, spouting anxiety-fueled cliches such as “You don’t even know this man!” “Those are Mom’s special dishes!” and other baseless fears.
“Push-Pull” is a beautifully written play that effectively uses humor and realistic dialogue while resisting the urge to descend into farce. Seniors who see it nod in recognition at many of Cohen’s lines, a response that Cohen no doubt acknowledges with great satisfaction.
The show runs through Sun., June 17 at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 E. Ventura Blvd. in Camarillo.
For ticket information, visit pushpullproduction18.weebly.com or call (805) 301-0042.