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Laughter is not the best medicine

Ed Fletcher says he only produces one drama per year at Bill Irle's Early Bird Dinner Theater.

The rest of the shows are comedies.

Why? People who pay $14.95 to get in the door want to laugh over their meatballs and sauce, not cry. Heavy dramas full of raw emotion don't draw the crowds comedies do.

"I've done 75 shows," Fletcher, 63, the theater's producer, said. "People my age don't like to think about dying. They like to come in, spend a few dollars and laugh."

And the theater's current production, a heavy drama called 'Night Mother, is all about death.

"This is going to be a hard sell," agreed Midge Mamatas, one of the actors in the two-woman play. "They (audience members) think their own lives are sad enough."

But this Pulitzer prize-winning play by Marsha Norman contains writing that "catches you," Fletcher said.

Still, Fletcher, didn't think of doing 'Night Mother until Mamatas, one of his favorite local performers, agreed to play the part of Thelma, the mother.

"It's a beautiful story," said Mamatas, a financial adviser for American Express by day, and an actor by night and weekends. "It's something you can learn from and talk about."

And, said Fletcher, "You get wrapped up in the lines."

"That's what it boils down to," he said. "We did a preview a few weeks ago, I loved the play. It's just marvelous."

In the story, the character Jessie suffers from epilepsy and depression so severe she decides to commit suicide. She warns her mother ahead of time, asking her to help her find the instrument of death: her late father's gun. Her husband, the love of her life, had left her, and she decides life is no longer worth living.

"I had depression, so it was easy to identify with her on that level," said actor Colleen O'Brien, who portrays Jessie in the production. O'Brien noted her illness was nowhere near as serious as the character she plays. "When I first read the script, I cried for three days."

Because the lines were so close to home, they brought the memory of her own depression back, so she shoved the script aside.

Little by little, she was able to pick it up and read it again.

"I've been out of depression for two or three years," O'Brien, 27, who works in marketing, said. "I felt lucky to get help."

Now she's looking west toward tinsel town, craving a career in Hollywood as a sitcom actor where the scripts occasionally make you laugh, but almost never make you cry.

Her acting partner, Mamatas, 57, prefers the stage, saying the immediate audience reaction she gets is "fun."

"I think live theater is so much more interesting," said Mamatas, who fell in love with acting when she played the role of the teacher in the Miracle Worker in Catholic high school in Michigan. One of her teachers, a Dominican nun, had gone to school with one of Mamatas' favorite actors, Julie Harris.

"She encouraged me," Mamatas said of the nun.

After high school, Mamatas studied acting at the Berghoff Studios, then switched career paths and became a writer for auto racing magazines.

"I was one of the first women to go into the pits at Indy," she said.

After traveling the world, Mamatas came back to the United States with her son, Tolee, now 21, settled in Clearwater and started acting at local dinner theaters.

Like O'Brien, she cried when she first read the script for 'Night Mother.

"The idea that people can live together and not know each other," said Mamatas, trailing off. "At first the mother doesn't believe (the daughter is going to commit suicide). Then she starts blaming herself."

Mamatas said she loved doing a two-person play.

"Colleen is fabulous," she said. "We have a fabulous chemistry together."