The Joy of Being Cranky
Veteran Kentwood Players actress has fun playing a grouch in “Olive and the Bitter Herbs”
By Emily Rome
Getting to say anything, no matter how off-color or un-PC, and getting away with it — it’s a generally accepted benefit of growing into one’s golden years. Young’uns envy their elders on that account.
Olive, main character of the next production from Westchester’s Kentwood Players, is a cranky septuagenarian, a classic New York curmudgeon, and even the actress portraying Olive aspires to the near-total lack of filter Olive has.
“I know people like Olive. And I kind of understand people like that ’cause I wish I could be like that!” said Gail Bernardi, who plays the titular lead in the production of “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” opening Friday at the Westchester Playhouse.
This is Bernardi’s first lead role in a while, after spending more of her recent years with Kentwood Players in supporting roles and also directing. She’s been a member of the theater troupe since 1979.
“Bitter Herbs” premiered in New York off-Broadway in 2011. Kentwood Players came close to being the West Coast premiere for the comedy, but Surf City Theatre in Hermosa Beach beat the group by just three months.
In the play, Olive’s cantankerous zingers are mostly slung at her neighbors, who pay her a surprise Passover visit, and she’s left to guide them through the Seder.
That’s another way Bernardi identifies with Olive: Both actress and character are Jewish.
For the cast photoshoot, Bernardi prepared charoset, a spread traditionally eaten with matzah.
Returning to the Jewish recipe recalled memories of family Passovers “as a child having Seders with my family with my grandfather officiating,” Bernardi said.
She also has been helping her co-stars with pronunciation of Yiddish words in the script. It’s a task she is accustomed to, having done some dialog coaching work for Kentwood Players, though this particular round of pronunciation aid of course came with the added expertise of her own Jewish background.
Olive’s hard outer shell reminded Bernardi of what her father used to tell her when she was learning how to drive: “The best defense is a good offense.”
“That’s kind of Olive’s mindset — ‘I’ll get you before you get me,’” Bernardi explained.
Though Olive’s vulnerability is revealed in her grouchiness, ultimately her attitude’s the source of a lot of the play’s comedy. Director Kirk Larson laughed out loud when first reading the play — “which I don’t normally do!” he said — and Bernardi admits that, to her at least, all the kvetching is “funnier because she’s Jewish.”
Larson said they plan to appeal to the local Jewish community as they’re promoting the play.
The LGBT community of the Westside is also an audience that Larson hopes to attract to the production, with openly gay “Bitter Herbs” playwright Charles Busch having a loyal gay following.
Bernardi, Larson, and everyone else involved in the production are volunteers.
“We’re all doing it for fun,” Larson says of their time at the nonprofit community theater. “It’s family,” he said, sitting in the cozy lobby of the Playhouse on a Wednesday evening, where fellow volunteers walking through on their way out were greeted by a chorus of “goodbye! Have a good night!” from “Bitter Herbs” producer Lori A. Marple-Pereslete, Larson, and Bernardi. Marple-Pereslete points out it’s a good thing it’s fun because “we’re here more often that we’re at home!”
For Bernardi, though, home is just about a block away from the Westchester Playhouse. But don’t expect her to be walking over home-made charoset and kugel throughout the show’s six-week run: Bernardi is relieved she just has to pretend to eat the dry matzah and doesn’t have to regularly dive into the two-hour process of making charoset.
So no real Seder meal will be consumed each night the “Bitter Herbs” cast takes the stage, but Olive will complain about the stinky cheese.
“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” opens at 8 p.m. Friday, July 8, and continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 13 at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Tickets are $18 to $20. Call (310) 645-5156 or visit kentwoodplayers.org.