It's new, but tried and true

Three-quarters of the graceful and surefooted cast that bring the premiere of William Jack Sibley's If You Loved Me to life at the Cameo Theatre.

You might not know 'If You Loved Me' but the characters will make you feel right at home

Not too long ago, I overheard some theater patrons complaining about a company's upcoming season. Their complaint was that they weren't familiar with most of the shows. The fact that this could be a cause for concern, rather than excited anticipation, makes me very sad, largely because I fear it's representative of a large portion of the local theater audience.

If you've been infected with this particular antipathy, I'd like to offer the world premiere of local author and playwright William Jack Sibley's If You Loved Me, running through October 14 at the Theatre at CameoCenter, as a gentle antidote. The production, directed by Jerry Pilato for Actors Theatre of San Antonio, isn't avant-garde. It won't scandalize you with slang or ask you to accept an alternative format. It's a simple, straight-forward production of a good old-fashioned story.

And it's excellent.

The script, which was workshopped at the Tennessee Williams Playwright Festival in Key West, Florida, The New Dramatists in New York City, and The Attic Theater in Los Angeles, is smooth and mature. Sibley, an award-winning playwright and novelist, is hardly a neophyte, and his experience and confidence are on display in this unapologetically plot-driven work about love, loss, and family history with a regional twang.

If You Loved Me

8pm Fri, 7:30pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Oct 9
$15 adult, $11 senior, military, $8 student
Cameo Theatre
1123 E. Commerce
Pilato's cast (Rainya Shingledecker, Tim Waggoner, Belinda Harolds, and Marcus Daratt) is fortunate in that the playwright has given them very real, compelling characters to play. But the grace and sureness with which they inhabit those characters are their gifts to the production. The cast is so uniformly strong that to say Harolds' performance stands out in particular (and it does) is a serious compliment indeed. As Pauline Spears (both young and old), the spinster aunt, she expertly negotiates the tightrope between Southern stereotype and sincerity. Kudos to both the playwright and Harolds for making this character just familiar enough to engage us, without slipping into caricature.

For a premiere production, If You Loved Me is remarkably polished. The second act could use a little tightening, and Daratt's character could use a little fleshing out, but with such minor flaws Pilato's stated goal of touring the show across Texas and possibly even pursuing an off-Broadway production seems well within reach.

In a time when many theater seasons are dominated by museum pieces, when theater-going is often played as an elitist game of dramaturgy, of comparing the nuances of the latest interpretation to those of productions past, it's nice to be reminded why people used to go to the theater, back when it was a more mainstream entertainment: They went to meet new characters, and to hear their stories. They went to be sucked into a tale as it unfolded, to care about the people onstage and to wait with bated breath for what came next. You don't know this story. You don't know these characters. But you'll enjoy getting to know both. •

By Laurie Dietrich