North Coast Rep Plans World Premiere Of Comic Fantasy ‘Annabella In July’

One summer a few years ago, Los Angeles playwright Richard Strand was driving through the San Gabriel Mountains with his wife Mary Lynn when they got lost and ended up at a massive ski resort that was closed for the summer.

While it may have been a wrong turn that led the Strands to the abandoned mountain cabin, it was also an accidental mistake, as the trip became the inspiration for his latest play, Annabella in July, which opens in its world premiere in the North on Thursday Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach.

Playwright Richard Strand

Playwright Richard Strand

(Courtesy North Coast Repertory Theater)

The five-character comic fantasy is set in a ski resort in California, where a couple in their 40s celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary during the off-season. When they arrive, some strangers at the resort recognize the woman for someone she is not, and the experience raises questions about self-identity, hopes, and dreams.

“It plays with their sense of self,” Strand said in a recent phone interview. “People have expectations of them. They love the person they think they are and she doesn’t feel particularly adorable.”

The production will be directed by North Coast Artistic Director David Ellenstein, who struck up a friendship with Strand a few years ago after years of waiting to get the rights to produce Strand’s Ben Butler. Ellenstein fell in love with “Ben Butler” in 2015, but he spent five years trying to get the production rights from Strand’s licensing agent, who thought a San Diego County production could compete with any LA-area productions.

Strand was completely unaware of Ellenstein’s search for “Ben Butler” until Ellenstein emailed him directly with his request and the deal was eventually finalized. Then the pandemic struck.

‘Ben Butler’ – about the imaginary conversations between Union General Benjamin Butler and runaway slave Shepard Mallory during the Civil War – finally went into production on the North Coast last fall and was a huge hit with audiences. After Ben Butler closed, Ellenstein asked Strand if he had any other scripts he would like to see produced, and one of the plays Strand sent was Annabella in July.

Strand’s career as a playwright began in 1976 when he was looking for a one-act play to direct in college and decided to write it himself. This short play won two national playwright awards and, when later expanded into a full-length work, premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. Since then he has written nearly 20 other plays. The Bug and The Death of Zukasky premiered at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville, and The Bug has been translated into German, Italian, French, Greek and Spanish.

Strand said he finds inspiration for plays in many places. “Ben Butler” was inspired by an article he read about the General’s meeting with Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia in 1861, where Butler devised a war strategy to save Mallory’s life. While their meeting is historical fact, the words the men exchanged are lost in history, giving Strand an exciting opportunity to imagine what they said.

“I was trying to imagine this conversation, and I thought there might be a play if I can figure it out,” Strand said. “I’m looking for conflict figures with clear motives.”

When he wasn’t writing plays — which Strand unpredictably popped up in “hot spots” of creativity — he worked as a teacher for nearly 20 years. In June 2020, he retired from his position as chair of the theater department at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.

After agreeing with Ellenstein on production plans for Annabella in July last December, Strand said they both wanted to make some changes to the script. Most of the tinkering is done, but Strand has driven down from his home in Claremont, east of Los Angeles, to attend several rehearsals, review Marty Burnett’s scenic design plans and watch the actors execute his words. The main actors are Louis Lotorto, Jacquelyn Ritz, Leilani Smith, Bruce Turk and Catalina Zelles.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “It’s a great cast.”

‘Annabella in July’

When: Previews: Thursday through September 9th. Opens September 10th and runs through October 2nd. 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. Saturdays 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. 2pm and 7pm on Sundays

Where: North Coast Repertory Theater, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

tickets: $54-$65

phone: (858) 481-1055


The cast of the North Coast Repertory Theater "Annabelle in July."

The cast of Annabella in July from North Coast Repertory Theater, from left: Leilani Smith, Louis Lotorto, Bruce Turk, Jacquelyn Ritz and Catalina Zelles.

(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

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