Last year, actor-director Jacqueline Wells learned that the Raven Players were looking for directors, specifically encouraging female directors. After applying and interviewing, Wells was offered local playwright Jody Gehrman’s Taste, which was set for its debut staging at the Raven Performing Arts Theater.
“They sent me an email saying that because I’d expressed interest in directing new works, they wanted me to direct Taste,” Wells recalls. “And I wrote back, ‘Great! I can’t wait to read it!’ And luckily,” she laughs, “I liked it!”
Putting a modern, wine country spin on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself the inspiration for the musical My Fair Lady, Taste is the story of a debt-ridden Sonoma County winery whose owner has died. On the eve of an all-important winetasting competition, the deceased owner’s niece, Astrid (played by Raena Jones), arrives to inform the staff (Nick Charles, Saskia Baur and Matthew T. Witthaus) that she has inherited the winery and plans to sell it.
A New York activist hoping to use the winery money to build a shelter for homeless teens, Astrid—who knows nothing about wine and is regrettably fashion-challenged—agrees to let the winery’s head winemaker, Joe (Witthaus), try to transform her into an elegant, make-believe Duchess, whose presence at the upcoming gala will increase the price tag of the winery.
And wine isn’t the only thing that ferments as Astrid and Joe move from a not so cordial relationship into a something a bit steamier.
“It’s definitely a romantic comedy,” says Wells, who admits that the trickiest part of directing Taste is in accurately representing the environment of a Sonoma County winery. “Doing a wine play in wine country has its challenges,” she laughs. “I knew we would have to make sure the actors did things correctly. But not all of the actors were familiar with how to properly hold a wine glass or how to sip and swirl and spit. They had to learn how to pronounce certain wine industry words.
“We had experts come in and work with the cast,” Wells adds, “and we actually practiced spitting—using fake wine and real wine.”
Wells says that she has especially enjoyed working with Gehrman, best known for her popular YA novels (Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft, Babe in Boyland), but also an experienced playwright.
“I’ve had a dream playwright and a dream cast,” she says. “Not only are they all excellent actors, but the chemistry between us all has been fantastic. I think audiences are going to see that.”