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A merry war

The Pear Theatre stages an old romantic comedy

It began in 1933 with a short story published in Cosmopolitan magazine about an upper-class young lady who runs away from home and falls in love with a traveling writer. The following year, film director frank Capra adapted the story into a romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Now, Mountain View's Pear Theatre unveils "The Walls of Jericho," a staged version of Samuel Hopkins Adams' "Night Bus" adapted by Diane Tasca and directed by Caroline Clark.

More than 80 years after it was first written, the story retains its Great Depression-era gender norms and rules regarding social propriety. Yet rather than reducing the play to a quaint anachronism, the time period provides the necessarily narrative tension to a plot that amounts to little more than a young woman and man making their way across the country on a limited budget.

While Elspeth Andrews (Sarah Cook) and Peter Warne (Drew Reitz) ride a Greyhound bus through the flooded country roads of the Midwest, the play rides on the couple's magnetic case of attraction and repulsion which begins the moment they meet and grows stronger with each exchange. The more impetuous and entitled Elspeth proves herself to be, the more Peter finds himself drawn to her; the more stubborn and ruthlessly pragmatic he is, the more she seems to enjoy his company.

There are of course many models for the young couple falling in love against their will, from Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick to Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to Piper Chapman and Alex Vause of "Orange is the New Black." In the case of Elspeth and Peter, the stakes are upped not only by their own pride but also by the context they find themselves in: unmarried and traveling together like man and wife, divided by social classes and fleeing the perceived wrath of her father, who has put out an award for information regarding her whereabouts.

One of the greatest charms of this production is the stylized delivery of the narration: third person, past-tense and shared equally between members of the cast. Aboard the night bus, Peter observes Elspeth for a moment before turning to the audience to declare, "She had a chin that expected to have its own way."

"You shouldn't try to be poetic; it doesn't somehow go with your face," Elspeth informs Peter directly, but confides with the audience, "Peter seemed to be a useful sort of person."

Both Cook and Reitz inhabit their roles comfortably, conveying the confidence of well-rehearsed actors enjoying their characters. Their romance is most believable when at least one of them has their sense of humor intact; a dramatic scene involving a leaking boat, a close call with a dangling branch and a shaky embrace is less convincing.

Actors Keith Larson, Leslie Newport, Stephanie Whigham and Todd Wright round out the cast by playing multiple supporting roles, from a lecherous fellow traveler to a bus company employee. Newport and Wright offer particularly comical turns as a gum-smacking waitress and a shifty driver, respectively, while Dave Sikula puts on an impressive Scottish brogue as Elspeth's blue-blood father, Andrew Bruce MacGregor Andrews.

Linda Atkins' period-appropriate costumes and Charles McKeithan's spare set adequately convey the context, while Caroline Clark's evocative sound design makes the world around the travelers come to life with everything from birdsong to bus exhaust. Tunes of the era ("Speaking of the Weather," "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover") help break up scenes; at a Sunday matinee, cheerful audience members of a certain age were humming along.

Longtime fans of the Pear will admire the theater's brand new digs, located just a few blocks away from the old location in Mountain View's North Bayshore. An expanded seating area, a bright lobby and two bathrooms at intermission are among the perks of the newly renovated space.

Meanwhile onstage, those titular "walls of Jericho," so named by Peter after the story recounted in the Book of Joshua, consist of nothing more than blanket strung along a length of rope stretched between a wall and a coat hanger. This flimsy construction serves a physical and symbolic barrier between Peter and Elspeth, meant to ensure both privacy and propriety in the various. The thing about walls, of course, is that they tend to come down, eventually.

What: "The Walls of Jericho"

Where: The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View

When: Through Oct. 4. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Cost: $25-$30

Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.

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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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