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Crowd-pleasing melodrama opens at SAT

by: peter wylie, The villain, Mortimer Frothingham (Andrew Garrettson), scowls as heroine Purity Dean (Rainy Rau) melts into the arms of the

On the dark stage, several actors stand in a circle moments before beginning their dress rehearsal. In full makeup and wearing overalls, long underwear, villainous capes and elegant satin frocks, they chant vocal warm-ups: 'Mayo, mayo, mayo, mayo...'

The actors are counting down to the Friday, April 25, opening of the Sandy Actors Theatre's newest production, 'Pure As The Driven Snow,' by Paul Loomis. It's a melodrama, a genre that theater director Jim Wilhite loves.

'It's a classic American form of live theater,' he says. 'You've got the villain, the maiden, the hero… Even 'Star Wars' is a melodrama - with special effects.'

Though Wilhite says some consider this 'primitive' theater, there are theater companies devoted only to melodramas, simply because they're such crowd-pleasers and kids love them. 'The audience becomes part of the play,' he says.

'Pure as the Driven Snow' pits the villain, Mortimer Frothingham, against the lovable, befuddled hero, Leander Longfellow. Both of them pine for the sweet heroine, Purity Dean, who in turn only has eyes for Leander - but she also harbors an awful secret she doesn't want him to know. The action unfolds in the lobby of Leander's family's inn, where a number of colorful guests are staying.

This is the fourth and final show in the theater's 2007-2008 season. Next season, which starts in September, the company will tackle five. The former artistic director of Portland's Stark Raving Theater, Wilhite came to Sandy Actors Theatre a year and a half ago. In that time, the theater has gone from being 'in the bucket' to doubling its audiences. His goal is to fill 75 of the 100 seats for each show.

Wilhite credits the success to a 'vibrant' board and talented actors, and admits, 'A play is only as good as its director.'

He says of his role: 'You have to be a people engineer.'

Several actors in the last few productions have never been on stage before joining the company. 'They've done an amazing job,' he says.

Wilhite, a Portland resident who is also a life coach, believes live theater is the best therapy there is.

'We all have our public personas,' he says, 'but these don't work on stage. You have to work through fear.'

He adds that the team aspect of working in a production stretches every human being because 'we have to confront ourselves.'

Andrew 'Drew' Garrettson, a self-described 'out-of-work actor' working in computer sales, plays the villainous Mortimer and says the play promises 'lots of laughter for all ages - something for everybody. It's good old-fashioned family fun - incredibly fun.'

This is only the third foray on stage for Kerry McAllister, a.k.a. Leander Longfellow. He says he struggled with the sheer volume of lines but has appreciated the chance to find the character beneath the hero archetype.

'I've been able to figure out what his motivation is behind each line,' McAllister says.

The actor works in the insurance business and says the regular commute from his Portland home to Sandy has 'actually been kind of a treat.'

The G-rated show runs through May 24, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, call Sandy Actors Theatre at 503-668-6834.