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Roy Glassberg plays Henry, a man who wishes life was over, in ACT's reading of 'Tomatoes.' - Photo by Troy Goossen

'Tomatoes'

Judging by a rehearsal reading of "Tomatoes," a new work by local playwright Diane Nichols, you're in for an entertaining time in an environment you'll recognize: the home and lives of everyday people engaging the mystery of death and making the decision of how — and whether — to jumpstart life again.

"These are nice people," says Shirley Patton, who plays Lacey, a woman whose husband has just died — and she is reconnecting with a high school friend, Henry (Roy Glassberg), whose wife has just died and who jokes darkly and often that death seems preferable.

"My character, Lacey, has just discovered that life is for the living — and for living while you have it," says Patton.

"Tomatoes" will be read at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland.

The newly widowed Henry is living with his middle-aged, single-mom daughter, Kelly (Colleen Pyke), who edits for a living, at home, and seems virtually without social connections until her dad fixes her up with "Mike the Pirate" (Dennis Nicomede), a random guy he meets in line at the market.

"She's a cheerfully determined person," says producer Dave Hill, noting the play came in at No. 9 in the Ashland New Plays Festival — a slot that usually wouldn't get it performed, but this one deserved and is getting a dramatic reading (script in hand, no costumes and props).

Kelly's children Sean (Will Ransom) and Emily (Mig Windows) are cheerful kids, even if Emily is just back from Burning Man, which seems like a menacing pagan rite to Henry.

This is a reading you want to go to, not just because it's good, smart, wise, funny and real, but also to get away from your TV or movie theater, where you're almost guaranteed that any feel-good family like this is about to fall victim to incest, rape, terrorism or just a run-of-the-mill home invasion by axe-murdering mutants from the next dimension.

Instead, this patchwork nuclear family is about to expand and follow a transformational arc, which means they are going to grow, learn and change while adhering to a theme — in this case the idea that, when life takes away what has meaning, you can reinvent yourself and make a new life, one worth living, maybe even better than before.

Nichols says her play was inspired by real-life events — her 73-year-old father was suffering kidney disease and feeling "down and hopeless," but then an old friend from high school came and fell in love with him, challenging his world view.

"The work didn't win prizes and get fully produced," says Nichols, "because it didn't have enough swearing. That's my little joke. They said it was too wholesome, not edgy enough, no big traumas."

Again joking, Nichols says she volunteered to have Henry commit suicide.

"But I do hope it gets produced. I'm just a sucker for a happy ending," she notes.

"The message is about older people really living their lives and trying new things," says Nichols. "There are too many people depressed and wanting to get off the planet. But as long as you're alive and breathing, you still have a chance at a good life."

Tickets cost $10 and are available at the door, Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org or by calling 541-646-2971.

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