ACT of Davie’s ‘Close Ties’ Hits Close to Home

When ACT’s (Actors Community Theatre of Davie) popular director Jerry Jensen decided to keep their latest production, CLOSE TIES by Elizabeth Diggs, in the playwright’s setting of 1981, it was a no-brainer. Audiences would surely love revisiting a family’s summer home set in the quieter and more rural Berkshires of decades past. Where, as Jensen states in his Director’s Notes, “There are no cellphones or even area codes, no PCs, an office where the father uses a Dictaphone. The kitchen table is the center of family activity. But the family relationships are as timely today as they were then.”

I couldn’t agree more. What struck me most, however, was how contemporary sounding many of the three generations of Whitakers/Fryes (and one young outsider) were – especially the grandchildren. Nonetheless, when they all arrive for the summer, long-held parental, offspring and sibling conflicts and resentments come to the fore (in disruptive scenes sure to strike a chord with many in the audience). Yet when it came to truly caring for one another – particularly for their set-in-her-ways and demanding family matriarch – they often appear concerned, loving … and personally involved. Acting in emotional and compassionate (if not always practical) ways that I’m not sure today’s self-involved younger generation would even consider. 

Close Ties starts off as an entertaining, almost drawing room-style comedy, especially in Act 1; then enters far more heavy, psychological territory in Act II. Many a patron (men included) will leave the theater teary eyed, but also comforted in having experienced the real meaning of family. And how good it feels – even in the face of a sudden frightening turn of events – when diverse family members finally come together for a common cause. Acting out of genuine concern and personal support. 

The first-rate cast of CLOSE TIES (minus leading lady Fern Katz) in their 1981
Berkshire summer home. From left: Peter Multach, Susanna Ninomiya, Carla Zackson
Heller, Jenna Niefeld, Brandon Montejo, Sage Meyers, Jose Norono.

For anyone facing the decline of a family member into the foggy realms of dementia (referred to, in earlier times, as “senility”) or know friends and neighbors impacted by the condition, this play will resonate completely. And if you’re lucky enough to have not been personally touched, it’s a true eye opener into the sufferer’s inner world. You witness how it feels to be an intelligent person who abruptly forgets her way home,  realizes she can’t recall what she did yesterday – yet still retains enough sense of self to worry about her future and when independent living will no longer be an option.

Highly experienced, professional actress Fern Katz – co-founder of ACT of Davie and a longtime favorite in the South Florida theater scene – stars as Josephine: the willful and domineering head of the Whitaker household. She acts as if the house is hers and everyone should follow her orders, despite having bequeathed their summer home to her middle-aged daughter and her husband ten years earlier (she just doesn’t remember). 

What a relief to greet brilliant Fern Katz, who’s all smiles, after her dynamic, witty, but
also, at times, gut-wrenching performance of a strong family matriarch dealing with
familiar family squabbles … amidst the unfamiliar and inevitable gathering storm clouds
of dementia.

Widely credited actress/director (locally and from NYC) – who also serves as ACT’s marketing director – Carla Zackson Heller plays Josephine’s hovering, concerned, and endlessly guilt-ridden daughter, Bess. Along with her complicated, yet loving, relationship with her mother we find this “stuck in the middle” between generations woman in a very troubled relationship with her daughter, Evelyn, who admits to hating her mom since grade school. Mostly for what she sees as interfering concern – known nowadays as “helicopter parenting.” 

Versatile actress/singer and proficient crew member Sage Meyers, who plays Evelyn with aplomb, is a powerful force of young resentment and insecurities. Still bruised and mourning her recent divorce, she confesses to blatant sexual desire and, when she acts upon those needs in a very 21st century feminist sort of way, unexpectedly ends up finding true love (but then won’t allow herself to believe in a positive outcome). 

And she continually attacks her older sister, Anna, for flirting with and always trying to steal her boyfriends, past and present. Anna sees her visit to the family summer home as a respite vacation from her husband and two daughters. Jenna Niefeld impresses in her role as 30-something Anna, a “girl who just wants to have fun,” that ends up innocently kidding around and even dancing with Evelyn’s boyfriend. At least I think so. 

But it takes a lot to convince Evelyn. The unplanned appearance of her new boyfriend Ira Bienstock (who’d called to let her know he was coming, but as Grandma Josephine answered the phone, the message is forgotten) leaves her on the defensive and quite nasty to everyone. Recent FIU master’s graduate Jose Norono has been busy making a name for himself in our local scene. He plays the ideal, patient boyfriend we all dream of (and even Josephine loves, as he follows her orders to a tee – picking up gardening supplies on his way over and then mowing the yard). 

Truth-bearer youngest sister, Connie, has finally had enough of Evelyn’s “poor me” madness and admonishes her to stop blaming everyone for her failings and take responsibility for her life. Honestly, but cruelly, stated. Recent FSU grad Susanna Ninomiya (with serious acting credits) is totally believable as the sweet but “just wait for it” exasperated family member. And 19-year-old Brandon Montejo perfectly portrays idealistic 16-year-old Thayer, the youngest of Bess’s brood, who loves his grandma so much, he decides he’ll quit school and stay with her in the summer house, that he’d also need to winterize. Of course, that’s impossible, but only sensitive sis Connie insists the teen’s words, and feelings, be treated with respect.

And where is their dad, Bess’s husband, in all this? Watson Frye, who’s now a senior partner in the law firm founded by his late father-in-law, spends most of the day working in an annex on the property that he’d converted into a law office – to Josephine’s endless chagrin. She keeps bringing up the many happy social gatherings she’d held there with neighbors (most now deceased or moved away). Peter Multach nails the role of no-nonsense lawyer Watson who seems content to retreat to his office while his wife frets about how he’d feel if she brought mom home to live with them, as they don’t get along. Not wishing to overstep and aware of his wife’s feelings, when push comes to shove, Watson is the practical family member who can access the best psychiatrist and facility in the area, and make the tough calls.

The sure hand of director Jerry Jensen – a highly experienced pro who’s also acted in 50 plays in 10 states – is evident throughout. ACT is lucky have him return for this complex and emotionally laden production. He, along with stage manager Alex Gonzalez, made it seem easy! ACT regular Mark Demeter provided dependable lighting design with sound design by 50+ year industry veteran Bill Heller. 

The company is also fortunate that their excellent set designer/construction head also holds the position of resident artistic director. Christopher Harrington’s large country-kitchen set, complete with wall decor and shelving, was spot on! As were the props and period costumes by volunteer coordinator and lobby board artist, Carole Czvekus. When you’re in a small theater, especially community theater, you better wear many hats! Much appreciation goes to producer Dana Fredebaugh, who also serves as ACT board president, and welcomed us with a brief introduction to both the company and the afternoon’s performance. 

Davie’s Pine Island Multipurpose Center is magically transformed into a lovely black-
box theater for ACT of Davie performances.

Here I must add that other than the insanely low ticket price (about the cost of a movie) that really makes the theater community accessible, you’d never guess this show was not a bonafide professional production. In fact, whether “technically” deemed so or not, I consider everyone involved – from actors to crew – of professional caliber. There’s even a luxe red curtain above the thankfully raised full stage. So other than the fact that you are sitting on comfy but movable chairs, it still has that intimate theater feel.

And if you’re a long-time ACT fan, you’ll be happy to see Barry Katz’s (Fern Katz’s husband of 68 years – some couples really are forever) welcoming smile as he takes your tickets at the door. Also, as a throwback to days of yore, you can purchase fresh hot coffee, soft drinks and snacks at their concession stand where everything’s still only a dollar. 

ACT of Davie’s deeply moving production of CLOSE TIES is only playing through May 19, so best not delay and order your tickets online in advance (it’s also a couple bucks cheaper) at It’s where you can learn about exciting upcoming programs as well. Based on availability, tickets can also be purchased onsite, where the plays are held, at the Davie Pine Island Multipurpose Center at Bamford Park, 38091 S. Pine Island Rd., Davie 33328. If you have questions, call the Center at 954-327-3941 or email

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