Sitcom Onstage: 'Olive and the Bitter Herbs' is more than a rerun

Golden Girls, Mary Tyler Moore, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Cheers, The Jeffersons — if you’re suddenly feeling nostalgic, Olive and the Bitter Herbs is the show for you.

“It’s like all of your favorite sitcoms put on stage,” said Director Darius Colquitt.

The Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids play centers around an aging former actress, Olive, who faces an internal battle about who she is years after the peak of her career.

“She’s this curmudgeon character,” Colquitt said. “She used to be a New York actress and now she’s up in age and she’s not working as much anymore and the only thing she’s ever been iconic for were these commercials from the ’80s, and people know her as the ‘Gimme sausage’ lady.

“There’s a man who lives in her mirror that she sees. All the people in her life are somehow connected to that man in the mirror.”

The play reads and moves like a sitcom as Olive interacts with her friends and neighbors, constantly torn between wanting to talk with others and wanting to stow away and be alone.

“There’s a lot of stuff that she’s dealing with and then you get to see it play out with all the other characters that enter,” Colquitt said. “It’s laugh-out-loud funny for me, because I get the humor. I would definitely tell people, if you’re coming in to get some existential meaning of life, don’t come to Olive and the Bitter Herbs. … It’s a show that’s meant to make you laugh — it’s meant to make you get away for a second.”

While the target audience for this show could be anyone, it’s geared toward fans of old-timey shows like Golden Girls, Good Times or All in the Family.

For those not familiar with Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids, it’s open to people of all (or no) religions, but all the shows have some connection to Jewish culture. One scene in this show stands out specifically not only for its historical significance, but its educational aspect, focusing on Seder, a dinner celebrating the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt.

“It’s the Jewish passover celebration. And during this particular scene, the writer Charles Busch said himself that of all the shows he’s written in his 30-year career, that Passover Seder scene has gotten the biggest laughs,” Colquitt said. “It symbolizes coming out of bondage into a new light, a new era, a new day. That is something in the show Olive is dealing with, coming out of her muck into a new era, meeting new people, expanding her wings and actually stepping out of what she’s been stuck in for so long; the rut that she’s kind of allowed herself to be in.”

Lori Jacobs is playing the role of Olive, and said one of the biggest challenges is showing both sides of the character.

“What I think will challenge me with the character … is to let her be her (abrasive) self but at the same time reveal a nice person under there to the audience so they are a little bit on her side and a little bit understanding of her and what made her that way,” Jacobs said.

Jewish herself, Jacobs moved to Grand Rapids from Detroit to be closer to family about 20 years ago. Before she could even unpack all her belongings, she was involved with the Jewish Theatre within a month of moving.

“I didn’t really know anybody,” she said. “It’s an identity and it’s … kind of like our unique place in Grand Rapids.”

Jacobs has years of experience acting and singing but, interestingly enough, this show will feature her first onstage kiss. She said she’s excited for the new experience, and excited for the audience to come and be entertained.

“I hope they’ll just walk out saying, ‘That was so much fun,’” Jacobs said.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids
Spectrum Theater
160 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
June 14-24, $25, (616) 234-3595