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Marissa Garcia leads a strong cast in the Catalina Players' 'Close Ties'

Whose story is it, anyway? Elizabeth Diggs' Close Ties is billed as a drama about a family coming to grips with how to deal with its increasingly senile matriarch. Eight characters vie for prominence in this 1981 work, presented by Catalina Players; some must inevitably be nudged aside by a few others whose personalities and conflicts command our attention--and the author's.

So which characters take possession of this story? The answer is a bit surprising, but it's the natural result of Diggs' own interests, and certain strengths of casting in the local production.

The matriarch in question is 84-year-old Josephine Whitaker, widow of a successful New England attorney she idolized. Josephine is WASPish in more ways than one; she heads a family of intelligent individuals of varying ambitions and genteel prejudices, and although in her lucid moments she seems like a typical lovable grandmother, she occasionally snarls some stinging rebuke, meant perhaps for a relative other than the one she's actually addressing.

Daughter Bess has taken possession of the family's beloved old summer home, while Josephine lives on her own in an apartment in the city. Bess has never been entirely comfortable in her relationship with her mother, and she's at a loss to deal with Josephine's emerging dementia. Bess' husband, Watson, has the level head in the household, and his opinion is sensible but too cold for the rest of the family: He wants to place Josephine in a very nice managed-care facility.

There's a third generation in the house: Thayer, a teenager whose frustrations manifest themselves physically and harmlessly in his invention of a dance he calls "stomp rock"; Connie, the next oldest, a serious young nursing student nursing a very mild and well-hidden resentment of her elder sisters; Evelyn, a graduate student in history, mistrustful of her mother and her older sister, and intensely bitter from her recently failed marriage; and Anna, the eldest, a bland and steady housewife who's secretly happy to get away from the kids for the weekend, and who harbors a well-stifled desire to do something more creative in her life. Also along for the weekend, unexpectedly, is Ev's boyfriend, Ira, an engaging young man who has made the mistake of falling in love with this angry woman who insists that their relationship can be only sexual, not emotional.

So, who will come to prominence in this story? Josephine is the prime candidate, and actress Marian Wald nicely manages her frightening bursts of misdirected anger and, toward the end, her distress when she begins to admit what's happening to her. Yet Diggs more often than not uses Josephine as a destabilizing force in the household rather than as its central figure.

What about the middle generation? Betty Sproul isn't given much to do with Bess besides be frantic and a little overemotional. Jack Goodhart plays Watson with welcome naturalism and without avoiding the harder edges of the character's personality, but Diggs merely makes Watson the stock father-knows-best figure in somebody else's story.

That brings us to the youngest among them. Connie and Thayer are pretty much one-note characters; Heather Kehres and Matthew Lunt, respectively, each do quite well in what amounts to complementary soliloquies, but Diggs could have excised the characters from her script without leaving the slightest scar in the story.

Anna (Lisa Bodden) would be a likely candidate to pull the show around her, being an outwardly stable and conventional character who is undergoing a little identity crisis, but Diggs is content to use Anna only as a foil for the character who becomes the play's center of gravity: the roiling Evelyn, who harbors resentments running the gamut from not being able to find her favorite bread for breakfast to believing that Anna has always lived vicariously through the younger sister's passions and errors.

And so it's the always remarkable and emotionally insightful Marissa Garcia who, as Ev, takes control of Close Ties. Garcia expertly modulates Ev's venom and spite so that the character becomes much more than the raging bitch she seems on the surface. Garcia makes us sense the vulnerability, and the long history of perceived manipulation and betrayal, behind her every line, and we can see, as does Ira, why Ev is worth loving despite everything.

Jason Cabrera as Ira is a good match for Garcia, appealing and sincere and about as nuanced as he can be, considering that Diggs doesn't paint him in very many colors.

Director Bill Fikaris, who did a fine job with Catalina Players' The Boys Next Door last season, draws the best from the individual cast members, varied as their experience may be. He imposes a crisp pace, never lingering excessively over the moments of melodrama, and once again proves that surprisingly good work can come from a community theater troupe like Catalina Players.

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