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A CRITIC REMINISCES
I have a dream. In it, I am walking under the marquee of a Broadway theater. Above me, Cathy Dresbach’s name is spelled out in lights.
There have been many actresses who caught my attention during my years as a Valley theater critic. Some of them went on to Broadway: Kathie Fitzgerald, Natalie Charle Ellis, Holly Cruikshank. Many of them did not.
I have always felt that New York’s greatest loss was Cathy. She has everything it takes to be an international star: charisma, looks and, most of all, talent – astonishing talent!
New York’s loss is our gain. For reasons of her own, Cathy made the decision to base her career here. That has given us access to a resume that can be matched by only a few actresses in the history of local theater.
I know. I was in the audience for many of those shows. I loved her as the reincarnation of an Andrews Sister in a World War II revue back when I was working at the Scottsdale Progress. I enjoyed hearing tales of her days as leading lady of the Ajo Repertory Company, surely the finest improvisational comedy troupe ever to make the Valley its home. And, of course, every one had a story to share about her stint on local TV’s insanely popular The Wallace and Ladmo Show, where she played Jodie of the Pink Berets, Perky the Clown and other characters.
Cathy often worked at Mill Avenue Theatre, the company co-founded by her Ajo partner in laughs, Ben Tyler. I remember one comedy, British I think. Cathy and Ben keep telling me its name and I keep forgetting it. There must be some significance in that.
In any case, it was not a popular show. The night I came to review it there were only two or three others in the audience. There were more actors on stage. That didn’t keep Cathy giving the kind of performance you never forget. Her professionalism is absolute.
Where to begin? Well, in no particular order, there was her emotionally devastating performance as a unknowing participant in the English World War II Kindertransport scheme – designed to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Germany at the onset of the war, but only the children. The show was produced by Arizona Jewish Theatre Company in 2008.
There was her directing turn on The Wallace and Ladmo Show, a show written by Ben and premiered in 1999 at Desert Foothills Theater, then revived in 2012 at the Herberger Theatre Center. Returning to a beloved place in her life, Cathy joined the cast of the revival playing several parts. It was obvious that, on stage or off, calling out notes from the auditorium, comedy was in Cathy’s bones.
Many critics found fault with the latest of Michael Frayn’s rewrites of his classic farce, Noises Off, but audience members weren’t complaining when Phoenix Theatre produced it in 2010. You’ve heard the phrase, “screaming with laughter.” Well, that’s what the audience was doing whenever Cathy, in the role essayed by Carol Burnett in the movie, was on stage. You may also have heard the adjectival notation, “split-second timing.” Cathy’s performance could have served as the dictionary definition.
In her early years as a stage actress, Cathy portrayed the glamorous roles. One of the best was her wife stalked by a hit man sent by her husband in Dial M for Murder at 3rd Street Theatre. Grace Kelly may have portrayed the lady in jeopardy in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version, but Monaco’s princess had nothing on ours.
Cathy even tried her hand at films. She was very good as FBI agent Nancy Fisher dealing with a man of deceptive identity in “The Imposter,” a 2012 thriller directed by Brit Bart Layton.
Whatever she did – and does – Dresbach captures the audience’s attention and winds it around her character. To reiterate the cliche, she can make you laugh, she can make you cry, and if the part is right, she can make you jump out of your skin.
So, cry your heart out, New York. You missed someone who would have turned the bright lights of Broadway into a supernova.
PHOTOGRAPHS, REVIEWS & THE KITCHEN SINK
Cathy and Pat McMahon from The Edge of Lunch, an sketch on The Wallace and Ladmo Show. (The puppeteer is probably Dan Horn.)
APRIL 2014. Gourmetheatre. Actors Theatre Fund-Raiser.
2014. Good People. Actors Theatre. Directed by Matthew Wiener. Taking over from Estelle Parsons, who created the role on Broadway, Cathy was Dottie, the heroine’s landlady. Dottie was given to tossing conversational grenades without thinking about who would be wounded when they exploded. Her role was designed to lighten up David Lindsey-Abaire’s dark comedy – and Cathy didn’t miss a lob.
2014. Tribes. Phoenix Theatre. Directed by Paul Barnes.
Cathy portrayed Beth, the mother of a deaf son who has raised him to read lips but with no understanding of sign language. When he meets a woman who attempts to correct his lack of knowledge, everyone’s life is changed, including Beth’s. Nina Raine’s challenging play mixed a touch of dark comedy with a considerable amount of dysfunctional fireworks to teach a lesson about the impact of family. Cathy tread the tightrope nicely.
Here’s a video produced about the show.
2013. Accomplice. Theater Works. Directed by Charles St. Clair.
Rupert Holmes’ comic-thriller might have been designed as a showcase for Cathy. She certainly did her best to steal the stage right out from under her co-stars with her role of a British wife who had plenty to say about her husband’s libido, all of it brutally funny. If Christopher Haines as the husband and Kerry McCue as the quintessential dumb blonde hadn’t been so hilarious themselves, she would have succeeded. The plot? Oh, yeah, something about a husband plotting to kill his wife so he can shack up with his male lover, only to have the audience discover a couple of plot twists later that it wasn’t about that at all.
2012. The Dixie Swim Club. Theater Works. Directed by Bob Sorenson.
This very funny – and quite touching – comedy is the tale of five friends who meet every autumn at a beach resort on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Cathy played Vernadette, an acerbic – and God knows, who plays acerbic better? – hard-luck type with a small bladder and a habit of getting injured. Bob Sorenson directed. Every ounce of his comic genius showed.
2012. The Wallace and Ladmo Show. Desert Foothills Theater / Herberger Theater Center. Written by Ben Tyler in 1999 and revived in 2012.
The 2012 cast of eight included Billy Lowry, Bill Thompson’s grandson, as Wallace; and Cathy Dresbach, as Rita Davenport, Mrs. Fream and Miss Karen. Dresbach directed the original production in 1999, and she was a cast member of the original TV show playing the character Jodi of the Pink Berets.
2010. Noises Off. Phoenix Theatre. Directed by Matthew Wiener. There were some problems with this production due to a rewrite by author Michael Frayn (I think it was his seventh time at revising the script), but none of them were caused by Cathy. She played Dotty, whom we see both as a “real person” and as the frumpy housekeeper she plays in a touring, silly-beyond-belief British sex farce. Cathy was hilarious, her legendary split-second timing overcoming any pitfalls created by Frayn in his overhaul.
2001-2002. Angels in America. Angels in America – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Actors Theatre.
1990. The Odd Couple (Female Version). CopperState Dinner Theatre at Max’s. Cathy and Jacqueline Gaston scored a huge hit in Neil Simon’s rewrite of his comedy classic. My wife laughed so hard I thought she was going to choke. A man at a few tables down actually pounded his hand on his table to emphasize his delight.
1988. Wally’s Cafe. CopperState Dinner Theatre at Max’s.
Sam Bobrick and Bob Clark’s comedy took place over several years as a restaurant owner, his wife and a waitress reflected on the events that had shaped their lives. Cathy scored as the waitress.
1985. Dial M for Murder. 3rd Street Theatre. Directed by Randal K. West.
Most people remember the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film when Grace Kelly killed the hit man sent by her husband to murder her. It was no less memorable in this production of Frederick Knott’s original play that featured Cathy, David Helmstetter and Chris Witt in the leads.