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With ‘Closing It Up,’ playwright and actress Molly Allen explores the funny side of dysfunctional families

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 11, 2018

Three adult siblings return to the home they grew up in. It’s virtually unchanged since the 1970s, complete with the well-preserved living room furniture encased in plastic slip covers. The owners of the home, their parents, are now dead, and the three survivors must navigate their way through grief, poke at old wounds and hopefully come together as family.

And it’s a comedy.

This is the story of “Closing It Up,” the new play by Spokane radio host and actress Molly Allen. This week it has its world premiere at Stage Left Theater in Spokane, where Allen serves as resident playwright. In addition to writing the play, she’s also playing one of the main roles, that of middle daughter Sara, the “one who’s done everything right. I stayed right there in Winnetka, Illinois, and I’m married and I have a couple boys,” she said.

Her brother, Scotty (Andrew Biviano), is a lawyer in New York. Scotty’s “very flamboyant boyfriend” Marcus (Mark Pleasant) writes for a fashion magazine. Older sister Andrea (Mary Starkey) is a Hollywood publicist. Each was born 10 years apart, and Andrea and Marcus don’t like each other, so the potential for conflict in this dysfunctional family runs high.

“We find out a lot of stuff through looking through the will that we didn’t know about and have to deal with,” she said.

There’s a lot to unpack in this show, which Allen calls an “R-rated comedy” for its adult situations and language. Because her character always toed the line at home, she experienced a very different version of her parents than her older and younger siblings did.

“When you’re the good one, you wonder, how can the same parents who were my parents, do that to you and do that to you,” she said. “So my character is constantly having these realizations.”

The parents, Allen said, “weren’t abusive or evil, but they were cold.”

She added, “I feel like that generation of parent – we put them at 75 years old – there was a lot of tucking things away, and I don’t think it was for the actual good of the person you were trying to protect by tucking it away, but it was under the guise of ‘This is to protect you.’”

She wrote the play in about three months, but it took a total of 18 months to polish it and get it ready for the stage. It’s her third produced full-length play, and her first as Stage Left’s resident playwright. The title and relationship with Stage Left afforded her a good foundation for mounting the show.

Her previous play, “On Shaky Ground,” had a run at Ignite Community Theater in Spokane Valley in 2016, and it was a rapid-fire, DIY affair. Allen didn’t have much time to workshop the show. She and co-star Billy Hutlquist would run their lines as they painted the sets. She gathered the props herself. She was very hands-on. Still, the show found an audience.

With “Closing It Up,” she had access to the building. She did readings and showcases.

“It’s been really nice,” she said. “I have a guaranteed spot every season. I don’t know that next year I’ll have a full-length play. I might not, but I’ll still participate and be very much a part of their playwright stuff.

“And I haven’t had to paint a single thing.”

Working with director Heather McHenry-Kroetch has been a treat.

“Whenever she’s at the helm, it’s nice,” Allen said. “She is so good at finding the extra funny. I love when she finds the extra funny. Or finds the extra poignancy or finds something that I didn’t see. This is the kind of show, we only have eight runs at it. I know that if we spent a month on it, we would find more.”

Just don’t ask her where she got the idea for “Closing it Up.”

“I have no idea. I have a friend who said, ‘I want to play this kind of character,’ so I started writing that, and he’s not even in the show anyway,” Allen said. In fact, she wrote several characters with certain actors in mind, including her mother, Ellen Travolta, and aunt, Margaret Travolta. But for various reasons, “We ended up with all different people.”

She did know, however, that she wanted to work with Starkey. And more specifically, portray Starkey’s sister.

She’s also thrilled to be surrounded by the Stage Left theater community, which includes McHenry-Kroetch and new artistic director Wes Dietrick.

“Marty Kittlelson is doing our props, but she’s also in it, which is great. And Penny Lucas has been great. And Mary Jo Rudolph,” she added. “These three women are just such lovely theater do-anything people. I mean Mary Jo Rudolph, who was the star of ‘A Trip to Bountiful’ (at Stage Left in 2017), she’s folding my clothes for me and she’s got one scene. She’s thrilled to do it. That’s what theater is about. And I didn’t realize Penny hadn’t been on stage in four years, so she’s doing this small part. They’re just lovely.”

And don’t ask her to choose between acting and writing. She said she likes both but thinks she’s a better writer than she is an actor. “I do love to be on stage. I feel very comfortable on stage … I like the ritual of it all. I could do this for a living. I could come to a theater every single night and do this. I love it. I love getting the costumes on and I love being part of it,” she said.

Combining the two has its challenges, certainly. “When I’m on stage, and everyone else is talking, I’m like, ‘I wrote that line. I remember when I wrote that line. Did she remember to say it? Oh, she said it. Oh god! It’s my turn to talk,’ ” she said with a laugh. “It’s true.”

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