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'What I Did Last Summer' charms Okoboji audience

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- We drove to Okoboji during a heavy rainstorm Tuesday night, and a deer crossed right in front of our car en route home, but still the trip to Okoboji Summer Theatre was worthwhile. We saw a charming play, "What I Did Last Summer," featuring an excellent cast.

Set against the background of World War II, the story deals with confrontation between a mother and son at their summer cottage on Lake Erie near Buffalo, N.Y.

It's 1945, and the father is in military service somewhere in the Pacific. Even though the war is winding down, the family has no idea that the end is so nearly in sight. The boy and his older sister are missing their dad while their mother tries to guide them during the father's absence.

In this gentle drama, the 14-year-old Charlie introduces himself to the audience, saying: "This is a play about me." Alex Rodriguez's engaging, natural manner draws us to him immediately.

His mother, sensitively portrayed by Becca Kravitz, a memorable role of the OST season, tells us that the play is about her. She runs the household, cooks the meals, writes daily letters to her husband, reassures Elsie, her daughter, that the war will someday be over and checks to see that Charlie studies his Latin.

Elsie, with a right-on-the-mark characterization by Kelsey Munger, knows the play is not about her. She's had a year or two of college. Since she has no friends her age at the lake, this is a summer to wait, to lie in the sun and read "War and Peace."

Charlie and his rival, Ted (Dru Silva giving an energetic, wise-cracking portrayal of a 17-year-old Canadian), contend for the affections of Bonny. Amy Wenzl makes a cute 14-year-old who isn't sure which boy she really wants.

Then Charlie falls under the spell of Anna, Bohemian-type neighbor and free-thinking artist. Elizabeth Gjertson presents a truly professional performance. That summer proves to be one that alters the family's perspective on life.

The six-character cast, all Stephens College students, is an ensemble to be applauded, each comfortably at ease in his or her role. Director Steve Taft earns praise for the success of this memory play.

Does my review sound like last week's "Brighton Beach Memoirs?" You'll find similarities with boy narrator-protagonist, the war background and volatile interaction between parents and children. Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach" uses more comedy mixed with the drama while "What I Did Last Summer" by A.R. Gurney (who also wrote "The Dining Room," "Sylvia" and "Love Letters") has more heart. Both shows were good, but we liked this one better.

A lovely set suggests beach, water and sky. Wooden steps, platforms and benches work well; a bench-rocker serves as an automobile.

Staff and students, holding umbrellas, ran out to the parking lot to escort patrons from their cars. "What I Did Last Summer" continues through Sunday, hopefully without any more rain.