By: Jon Jory, from the 1934 novel by James M. Cain
Produced by: San Jose Stage Company
Directed by: Ken Kelleher
Featuring: Allison F. Rich, Jonathan Rhys Williams, Robert Sicular, Michael Bellino, Justin Gordon and Tanya Marie
When: April 11 through May 6, 2018
Where: San Jose Stage Company, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose
Tickets: $30-$65; call 408-283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.
she undertakes, especially at San Jose Stage
"When I was a kid," said actor Allison F. Rich, "one thing I got teased for was that I had really big eyes. In junior high, other kids, other girls, would say, 'Here's a quarter, go buy yourself some eyelids.'
"It's funny: I feel the things we get teased about when we were young become our strongest attributes."
On stage, as in the "Sweeney Todd" that recently had a strong run at San Jose Stage Company, Rich is an immediate eye magnet with her striking features and beauty, but she holds attention with her charisma and her devotion to whatever role she is playing.
Her face is so striking it almost seems alien — not like from another country, but from another planet — but it is the intensity of her performances that keep audiences with her.
"I am very well aware of the fact that I have severe features," Rich said during a phone interview. "I have an angular, thin face, big teeth. As I got older, I've tried to play them to my advantage."
San Jose Stage Company, where she is now a resident artist and casting director, almost let her get away.
In 2009, she was living in Chico, where she spent most of her childhood through college years (she was born in the Bronx, and came to California when she was 2), but went to San Jose to audition for "The Great American Trailer Park Musical."
"I was really frustrated. So many auditions! I was feeling discouraged," Rich said. "I almost didn't come down. But, well, it was an excuse to visit my boyfriend in San Francisco.
"I got the callback, they told me come back prepared for the pole-dancing stripper. I was wearing a sweater, a cardigan. Nothing that said 'stripper.' Asking about my dance background, they said, 'How about pole dancing?'"
Stage Company Artistic Director Randall King recounted that day in 2009. "We were having a callback for 'The Great American Trailer Park Musical.' It was a lot of people, a big day, a cattle call. Allison kind of came in, struck a nerve in the room, but got released by the director. Cathy (Cathleen King, wife of Randall and executive director of Stage Company) said, 'Where's that blonde, Allison Rich?'"
"She was in the parking lot," said Cathleen. "She was in from out of town. The director thought that would be a problem. I said, 'She was the best I saw, go get her.'"
Rich was a hit as the stripper. Critic Karen D'Souza said of her in the Mercury News, "While the cast here is uniformly deft, serving up raunchiness as if it were foie gras, Rich not only revels in the bad-girl routine, she also finds the heartache beneath the brassiness that makes Pippi tick."
Since then, Rich has helped numerous plays succeed at San Jose Stage, including "Bonnie and Clyde," "Cabaret," "Venus in Fur," "Boeing Boeing," "Fool for Love," "Addams Family," "The 39 Steps," "Wild Party," "Toxic Avenger" and others, including the recent, stunning "Sweeney Todd," as the evil and ambitious Mrs. Lovett.
She was swaggering and vulnerable in the role, menacing and hilarious, delivering her lines in a great Cockney accent that made the funny parts funnier and the scary parts scarier.
"Allison F. Rich, a company veteran, oozes unsavory menace as the tart-tongued pastry pusher. Rich mines the comedy from this gruesome business and she captures the silly dreams still brewing inside of the scheming Lovett," said D'Souza in her review.
"It was a bucket-list role for me," said Rich. "The opportunity to do it at San Jose Stage with that cast was just a dream. We all got very close. There was a sense of communal purpose. It was awesome, really."
That sense of communal purpose is a large part of what the husband-and-wife team of Randall and Cathleen King have striven to create at San Jose Stage, and in Rich they recognized someone to embrace and develop.
"When we started," Randall said, "People told us, 'You're going to have a hard time finding people who care as much as you do.' But when we do, we hug them tight. It's a great thing for actors to know they have a creative home.
"The possibilities are pretty endless with Allison," he said. "She has the versatility to reach deep."
In addition, Rich has been made casting director for San Jose Stage, a paid staff position. "We're looking at her as part of the next generation of leaders for this company," said Cathleen.
But even with all the acting — at San Jose Stage and theaters in cities ranging from Ashland, Oregon, to Santa Maria — and the part-time staff work, Rich wasn't making ends meet.
"It's so expensive to live in the Bay Area," she said. "About two years ago, I came to point that if I don't get a day job, I won't be able to stay." The rents in San Jose didn't help, either.
So, these days, she lives alone in an apartment in Walnut Creek, works as an office manager in a private office in Jack London Square in Oakland. Then commutes down the 880 to rehearsals and performances in San Jose. Three and a half hours a day in her car.
"It's a humble apartment on the south side, pretty quiet. It's nice. I spent so many years traveling for theater, in home-stays, guest-artist places, that finding an affordable place without crazy roommates, without crazy drunken roommates, it was a relief to have my own place."
Rich grew up in Chico. She's been a piano player since she was 4 years old.
"I was a total band geek through junior high school and high school, and also played saxophone. My first declared major at Chico State was music education. I wanted to be a high school band teacher."
But there was this fascination she had with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
"I discovered the film when I was in the 8th grade," Rich said. "I was obsessed with the musical. Tim Curry (who starred as Dr. Frank-N-Furter) had me questioning things about my sexuality when I was 14. I grew up watching 'Little Shop of Horrors,' 'Grease,' 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'"
Rich said that a local community theater, Chico Cabaret, did "Rocky Horror" annually for three years, and "everybody said, 'you should get involved.'
"It was a fully staged live musical. I was 18 years old, had no idea what I was doing. I was cast as Magenta, the maid. Something clicked. I thought, 'This just feels right. This is my home, my people. It just makes sense."
So for the next few years, she did community theater where she could, and worked as a musical director for shows.
She auditioned for Joel Rogers, the head of the musical theater program at Chico, and he said, "You'd be an idiot not to do this," so she switched her major to general music, and added a musical theater major.
She expanded her auditioning range, and eventually got to San Jose Stage.
"One boyfriend got me auditioning," she said, "another got me to move. All the boyfriends are gone, but I'm still here."
Tonight (April 14, 2018), Rich opens in a new version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" as Cora, the horny, merciless wife of the café owner, Nick.
"I was not expecting to be in this piece," Rich said. "It kind of happened at the last minute, due to unforeseen circumstances. . . . "It's a cool story, an interesting challenge.
"A drifter shows up at a roadside diner owned by an older Greek gentleman. The Greek invites the drifter in, trying to convince him to work for him. The Greek's attractive, much younger wife comes out, and the drifter and the wife have an intense, animalistic passion for each other and they start canoodling. He wants to take her out on the road, but she convinces him to help kill her husband to keep the diner."
It's all that canoodling that led to a technical challenge for Rich: Searching for a lipstick that will not come off during a "prolonged makeout session on stage." She was concerned for her costar, Jonathan Rhys Williams, because "he's on stage the entire time. He never leaves."
So, he can't be worried about having to figure out a way to get Rich's lipstick off his face before the next scene.
"Postman" closes on May 6. On May 7, Rich gets one day off to celebrate her 34th birthday, then on May 8 she starts rehearsals for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at San Jose Stage.
It will be her directorial debut.
"I'm glad the Kings are giving me an opportunity to do something different," Rich said.
"I don't think I would be the performer I am now if San Jose Stage hadn't taken a chance on me, and given me countless opportunities to show what I've got. Randall and Cathleen King have always been in my corner. They really did take a chance on me, especially in the beginning ... it's been wonderful. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if not for them."
Email John Orr at email@example.com