Guarded” likely the ‘defining play’ of 2017 for Pioneer Playhouse

Published 8:18 am Thursday, July 13, 2017

Every year at Pioneer Playhouse, there’s usually one play that gets talked about and remembered long after its two-week run is over. If I was a betting man, I’d bet “Guarded” will be that defining play for the 2017 season.

The play is a sequel to “Grounded,” which premiered at the outdoor theater in 2015. Both plays are based off of novels by Kentucky native and Stanford resident Angela Correll. You don’t need to have seen “Grounded” or even know the premise of the previous play in order to enjoy “Guarded” — the sequel stands on its own quite nicely.

“Guarded” doesn’t just continue the story of Kentuckian-turned-big-city-girl Annie (Erika S. Lee) and her Bluegrass grandmother Beulah (Patricia Hammond); it also continues the themes and styles of the first play.

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Like “Grounded” before it, “Guarded” is uniquely impressive for how it makes jokes about life in Kentucky without stooping to the outright stereotypes that have long plagued us as Kentuckians.

In much the same way that you can make fun of your sibling, but no one else better try it, the jokes in “Guarded” are funny because they’re coming from Kentuckians — and Kentuckians are the ones laughing along.

“Guarded” is a beautifully executed play that’s far more complicated to pull off than it appears to the audience. Holly Hepp-Galván and Robby Henson came up with a masterful adaptation of Correll’s novel for the stage.

During the play, two stories are told in tandem — one in modern-day Kentucky and one in Italy during World War II. Scenes change from one place and time to the other through interesting transitions, where the characters from a scene that just ended continue acting wordlessly as they move through the new scene and off the stage. The merging of the two different times and places will give you chills more than once.

Annie and Beulah are complex and deep characters; and Lee and Hammond are just as solid in the roles as they were in 2015. Other modern-day characters, like neighbors Woody (Liam McDermott) and Betty (Rita hight) are almost one-dimensional — in a way that feels like it’s by design. The simple neighbor characters provide a lot of laughs and light-heartedness, which increases the contrast in the play between the funny and serious moments, making the important, emotional scenes feel that much more powerful.

While Lee and Hammond are reprising their lead roles as Annie and Beulah, Annie’s fiancé Jake has been replaced — in 2015, he was played by Heath Hadon; this time, he’s played by Cody Rees.

Rees doesn’t have the same stage presence that Hadon did; his “Jake” doesn’t feel as real. Some of that may be due to a reduced role for the character in “Guarded.” There are no scenes that feature Jake like there are for Annie and Beulah. He’s often just someone for Annie or Beulah to talk to, so the audience never feels they get to know him like they do the other lead characters.

The companion story to Annie and Beulah in Kentucky is about an American soldier, Ephraim (Matthew Howie), who is stationed in Naples, Italy, during World War II. Ephraim befriends an Italian girl, Elena (Lily Warner), and her family as he waits for word on what his unit’s next move will be.

As you can guess, there turns out to be a connection between Ephraim in the 1940s and Beulah and Annie in the 2010s. It’s a nice little mystery for the audience to piece together as the play progresses, and the way the two storylines are brought together at the end makes for one of the most satisfying ends to a Playhouse play I’ve seen.

Satisfying is actually a good word to describe the entire play. It will make you proud of being a Kentuckian in more ways than one; it will affirm the importance of family and loyalty; it will give you some good laughs; and it will probably make you cry at least once.