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Backing Away From Hell

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Forty-eight years ago at her Sunset and Barrington residence, actress Mariette Hartley was finishing breakfast as she heard a high pitched blasting sound unlike any she recognized. The horrible discovery to follow was only truly and eerily felt as Hartley spoke of cleaning up her own father.

Unimaginable.

If You Get to Bethlehem, You've Gone Too Far does not carry that tone throughout. In fact, the theatre piece is a smoothly intertwined experience of intrigue, sorrow, and laughter. Believe us when we say that if a nun swears, you laugh.

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Linearly, the story follows Hartley's journey to visit her cloistered mentor, Mother Delores Hart, at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. Hartley's travel and eventual arrival play out racing thought memories of her past leading up to the suicide of her father, John B. Watson. Successfully demonstrating this erratic behavior through a visual collage of what feels like radio theatre, director Don Eitner slows the pace after Hartely leaves her car to enter the Abbey.

Mother Delores can thank the invention of DVDs for her continuation as a voting member in the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences. Formerly a movie star, Delores Hart (who can claim fame for being Elvis' first on screen kiss) found comfort in the Abbey's welcoming community that held consistent friendships. "I think that's one of the most anguishing parts of Hollywood," Hart told ABC News in 2001, speaking of the transient nature of the Hollywood career. "You work intensely for maybe eight to 10 weeks... And you never see the person again. It's terrible..."

While not totally missing from the silver screen, Hartley has limited her screen time as she concentrates on the topics of her memoir, such as being active with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But as an actress, her story is one of dreams: literally days after stepping off the bus in Hollywood, she landed a screen test and the rest was history.

Hartley (who also wrote the play) and Eitner crafted Bethlehem carefully, separating moments of theatre and first person story telling. The 11 personas Hartley embodies throughout can be a bit too subtle at times, but never overdone. The set is as humble and stark as a quick pencil sketch dashed with sparse color from a few pieces of faded furniture (owned by Hartley herself, we suspect). Sound cues are rock solid in quality, but lacked a diverse amplitude of dynamics. This is a classic theatre experience mixed with honest views on contemporary problems of mind and soul.

The personal story of self-acceptance can be seen at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks through the end of February. When we caught the show opening night, Hartley came out for bows and actually did the Superstar move as she eyed close friends and family. It was completely honest and genuine, but we loved it. From now on, every actor must replace their bow with Molly Shannon's "Superstar."