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Review: ‘Second Samuel’ explores themes of tolerance, community

“Second Samuel,” Pamela Parker’s bittersweet comedy running at Spokane’s Civic Theatre, is a two-act play. This is an important distinction, because each half of the story shows a small Georgia town in a different state of transformation.

Change isn’t something the residents of the tight-knit community Second Samuel openly embrace. In fact, it’s one of those places where everything is as it’s always been, and that’s just fine with everyone.

But after the summer of Miss Gertrude’s death, sometime in the late 1940s, nothing will be the same again in Second Samuel. Miss Gertrude was the local piano teacher, and her compassion and wisdom seemingly touched everyone in town; her death inspires the townsfolk to gather in their regular hangouts – the men crowded around their poker table in the bar and bait shop, the women at the beauty salon – and reminisce about their late friend.

And that’s when, as one of the characters says, “the ol’ proverbial hits the fan.” A secret about Miss Gertrude’s true identity, something she had carried with her for years without anyone knowing, comes to light, and it shatters the tranquility of the sleepy Southern town.

The reveal of Miss Gertrude’s secret, which closes out Act I, inspires both a big laugh and a stylistic about-face. It causes the sheltered Second Samuelites to not only re-evaluate their perceptions of Miss Gertrude but also their own beliefs and prejudices. If the first half of “Second Samuel” is a colorful regional comedy, the second is a more meditative exploration of tolerance and the importance of community.

Directed by Jhon Goodwin, “Second Samuel” is really an ensemble piece, and everyone in the 11-person cast develops their role beyond mere stereotypes, which could have been an easy trap to fall into. Our narrator is a mentally challenged young man named B Flat (David Hardie), and we see the town through his good-natured, unbiased worldview.

B Flat introduces us to the other Second Samuel residents, including the bait shop’s owner Frisky (Billy Hultquist); his wife, Omaha Nebraska (Nicole Walker), who runs the beauty salon; and U.S. (Charles S. Talley), Frisky’s sole African-American employee. As staged by the Civic, both of the play’s primary settings – the watering hole and the salon – are right next to each other, and the conversations going on at each establishment often overlap one another.

The great joy of “Second Samuel” comes from simply listening to its characters talk. But if there are any problems with “Second Samuel,” it’s in Parker’s plotting, which is sometimes simplistic in its treatment of complex social issues. Some of its characters shed their firmly held beliefs too conveniently, and Parker’s portrayal of the American South in the years following World War II is more in the realm of Norman Rockwell than real life.

But “Second Samuel” isn’t aiming for biting, hard-hitting social commentary: It’s a wistful and warmhearted period piece, a portrait of characters who exist in a hermetically sealed environment coming to terms with the modern world changing rapidly around them. This is a story of acceptance and open-mindedness, and as such it’s pleasant enough. It’s the great cast that makes Civic’s “Second Samuel” such a funny and thoughtful show.

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