Live theater is back at Whidbey Playhouse: “Tea for Three” opens Friday

— Created September 15, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

The Whidbey Island community is invited to share an evening with three special ladies as Oak Harbor’s Whidbey Playhouse welcomes Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford to the stage in “Tea for Three, Lady Bird, Pat and Betty,” a play by Eric H. Weinberg and Elaine Bromka. The play opens Friday and will run through Oct. 3. Live performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Saturday’s performance will also be live streamed, with on demand viewings available Oct. 1 and 2.

Director Eric George said “Tea for Three” is the perfect way to bring live theater back to Oak Harbor.

“When the [selection] committee met to discuss the season, we had to meet certain criteria,” he explained. “It couldn’t be a show with more than five people, it couldn’t be a musical, it had to be able to be performed with social distancing. Well, ‘Tea for Three’ was perfect, because it’s essentially one woman on stage at a time. It got within the parameters we were given. Plus, the show was just so good.”

Erin Tombaugh, Jill Jackson and Sarah Gallella bring to the stage first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford, respectively – sharing the same space on stage, although not at the same time, much as the three first ladies occupied the same space in the White House at different times during their husbands’ presidencies.

 With historically accurate backdrops featured on the screens behind them, each of the women reminisce about their time in the White House as they are preparing to meet their successor. And while these meetings took place in 1969, 1974 and 1977, the issues they discuss are surprisingly relevant all these decades later.

“This play is very relevant today,” George said. “During Lady Bird’s and Pat’s time as first lady, we were in the throes of Vietnam. In 2021, you have everything going on in Afghanistan. The first ladies were very vocal about women’s rights across the board and in 2021, we are dealing with something very similar with women’s rights being challenged.”

“One of the main [issues] for Betty Ford was the Equal Rights Amendment, and current times directly mirror that right now with what’s going on in Texas,” said Gallella. “The same thing that those states are going through are things we’ve already been through and I love her lines about it – but you’ll have to wait for the show [to hear them]. This show in particular is a great way to open conversations with people.”

Learning about the women they portray has been an interesting process, according to the actors. Jackson, for example, said she read three or four books about Pat Nixon, looked through copious news articles and even contacted the Nixon Presidential Library as part of her research.

“One of my passions as a kid was first ladies,” she said. “Martha Washington was the one that sparked everything so I just kind of read through all the first ladies. Being Pat has been a really unique research experience.”

“They were all before my time,” said Tombaugh. “I was really only familiar with them by name. I’d heard tidbits maybe of their husbands, but as to the ladies, I was very unfamiliar. [It has been interesting] just kind of hearing about what it’s like to be that behind-the-scenes and yet be such an important person and an important role for the country.

“I also loved learning about ways she stepped in, like, she did a campaign tour in the south when they wouldn’t let Lyndon Johson go down there,” she continued. “So, the overlap of her role into the presidency has been really interesting for me to learn about.”

“I was familiar more with [Betty Ford’s] later years, when she went into rehab and how that influenced her to start the Betty Ford Clinic, and being a breast cancer survivor and fighting for the ERA, so I was familiar that she did those things, but not the details of them,” said Gallella. “I learned we might have more in common than I thought, as far as being a mother and a wife and supporting a family.”

Because the play is performed as three separate monologues, essentially, there was a lot of memorizing to do. Plus, it’s not easy to be alone on stage, according to George.

“It’s very, very difficult, because you don’t have anyone to play off of,” he explained. “It’s just you on the stage with the audience and you have to keep that audience engaged. Plus, having to memorize a regular monologue is a challenge for most actors, but this show is a 12-page monologue and my actresses stepped up and they took on that challenge head on.” 

“It has actually been really rewarding to be able to dive so fully into the character,” Tombaugh said. “Not that I long for this kind of role in the future, but there’s something about being the only one on stage that you could set yourself up poorly, but you could also set yourself up really well to have your moment to really share who this person is who you’re portraying.”

“As an actress, you think of your pre-show and production time frame and you have to divide your thoughts and energy into all of your different scenes per show,” Gallella said. “When you’re doing something like this, you really get to focus and dial it down to staying on your part to be as solid as you can.”

“This was originally a one-woman show and to be able to break it out into three women and three distinct personalities and people I think is a challenge for all three of us,” said Jackson. “But also, what a gift to be able to give each woman that moment and that time that we’ve spent with her to portray her to the best of our ability.”

“It’s been fascinating watching Erin, Jill, and Sarah slowly become these women,” said George. “I wanted from the beginning for these women to seem real and not caricatures. I encouraged the women to do their own research, watch interviews, learn what these first ladies were like and take that and make it their own. Each woman brought their own sense of who they felt each first lady was as a person and over time, it evolved into what you see on stage. We started out working on accents, then it was mannerisms, then wigs, and finally costumes. When all of them came out in full costume and started talking, I swear it was like I was watching Lady Bird, Pat, and Betty.”

Despite not sharing the stage except for the curtain call, there is a well-developed camaraderie among the “Tea for Three” cast, who said they are thrilled to be able to get back to doing live performances for the community and doing it safely. For the protection of the cast, crew and audience, the Playhouse has been diligent about health and safety in the time of COVID. Audience members will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to be admitted to the building. Masks are required, there will be no concessions or intermission to discourage mingling and programs are digital, rather than printed. 

But it’s still live community theater, perhaps just a slightly stripped-down version.

“It’s one lone actor on the stage sharing the story, putting their heart on the line – and their health, a little – to bring back theater,” said Jackson. “It’s not just Broadway, it’s everywhere. It’s important that we bring back this part of the community, because our community suffers when we’re not connected.”

To learn more or to purchase tickets online for live or streaming performances, visit The Playhouse is located at 730 SE Midway Blvd. in Oak Harbor.