Sonoma Arts Live brings a little retro-television to the Rotary Stage in Sonoma with Sidekicked, a one-woman show about actress Vivian Vance. Vance is best known as America’s favorite TV neighbor, Ethel Mertz, a character she played for nine seasons alongside Lucille Ball. The Michael Ross-directed show runs in Sonoma through Feb. 19.
It’s 1960 and the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (the successor series to the original I Love Lucy) is about to be filmed. Tensions are high at the studio. Lucy and Desi are only speaking to each other through intermediaries (Ball filed for divorce from Arnaz the next day), and Vivian Vance (Libby Oberlin) is dealing with the realization that her love/hate relationship with the character of Ethel Mertz might still get the best of her. She has asked her analyst to stop by her dressing room for some support to get her through the day’s shoot, and she has a lot to say.
That’s the somewhat-hackneyed premise that playwright Kim Powers uses to spin his fan-inspired autobiographical tale of the life and times of Vance. From her upbringing in a strictly religious family with a dismissive mother who looked down on her life and career choices, through a series of failed marriages and a particularly abusive husband, the audience gets to know lesser-known aspects of Vance’s life, including her battle with mental illness and her willingness to speak publicly about it.
Viewers of Sidekicked also get the better-known details of Vance’s time on I Love Lucy—Lucy’s desire to “frump her up” and the mutual hatred shared between her and co-star William Frawley. There’s also plenty of “Do you remember the episode when…?” points of reference for the audience to wax nostalgic, a markedly lazy bit of scriptwriting.
Oberlin does her best with the paint-by-numbers script, particularly when she’s mimicking the other cast members of the show. While she possesses little physical or vocal resemblance to Vance herself, Oberlin does fully commit to the character. By the end of the show’s 95 minutes (including intermission), one should gain an appreciation for Vance beyond her work as Ethel Mertz, at least pre-1960. While her career reached its apex with I Love Lucy, Vance apparently found personal happiness later in life.
The show contains little for folks unfamiliar with the work of Vivian Vance. Fortunately, that only leaves a potential audience in the millions.
‘Sidekicked’ runs through Feb. 19 on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Thurs-Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm, $25–$42. 707.484.4874. sonomaartslive.org.