"Rupert's Birthday and Other Monologues" offers gently entertaining encounters with three very ordinary people, each with an extraordinary tale to tell.
Sanctuary Theatre begins the evening, written by Ken Jenkins for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, with a brief segment of folk music, which functions as an overture of sorts. As Diane Walder (who alternates evenings with Joe Pipik) sings songs by Jean Ritchie and Woody Guthrie in her plain, clear voice, accompanied by her guitar or fiddle, she sets the stage with echoes of the Appalachian hill country.
"Chug" is the first to introduce himself. Lugging two six-packs of Coors into his mobile home, he dispatches three bottles almost before he starts talking. He opens the refrigerator, and then the freezer, and they are both filled to overflowing with paper-wrapped parcels we later learn are frogs' legs. As Chug, played in a down-home, animated way by Nick Fillah, tells us how his can't-fail get-rich-quick scheme, farming bullfrogs for research labs, was bogged down in a bureaucratic mess, he comes across as an everyday Mark Twain.
Next up is John, the "Cemetery Man," an ancient career gravedigger who is about to be replaced by a diesel machine. John has taken to shooting at the infernal engine, and between potshots he links a meandering chain of macabre stories about some of the folks he's laid to rest. Cliff Smith is a charming and completely believable old codger, down to the halting and sometimes mumbled speech and the emotion that wells up when he shuffles through the photos of lost loved ones.
Elizabeth Bruce plays Louisa May, a feisty spinster who refuses to celebrate Christmas, New Year's Day, Groundhog Day . . . she recognizes only "Rupert's Birthday." Rupert, who was born on the same evening as her brother Orville -- the last of eight children -- turns out to be a calf that Louisa May helped deliver as a teen-ager, and her monologue is a down-to-earth rumination on the mysteries of womanhood, birth and the moment of death.
"Rupert's Birthday" marks another step up for Sanctuary, which has failed at times because of overambition. But don't go expecting fireworks: The actors deliver their tales in a pleasingly unhurried conversational manner, and the stories themselves are rambling and humbly humorous -- and will afford a glimmer of insight to the patient.
Rupert's Birthday and Other Monologues, by Ken Jenkins. Directed by Michael Oliver, Oliver Hinson, Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas. With Elizabeth Bruce, Nick Fillah, Joe Pipik, Cliff Smith, Diane Walder. At Sanctuary Theatre, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW, through Jan. 31.