By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

When Jim Strait and Paul Taylor, co-founders of the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage retired to the big island of Hawaii, they passed their leadership torch of running the only LGBTQ theatre serving the Coachella Valley to new artistic director Robbie Wayne and to new managing director Kam Sisco.

Desert Rose Productions new producing team launched their first venture with a Southern Gothic horror tale titled, ”The Sugar Witch.”   The play is hard to label.  It begins as a bit of a comedy hoot, then shifts its tone and gears into a dark tale of murder, ghosts, and myths.
It’s still the same Desert Rose Playhouse located at 69-620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage, CA where Strait and Taylor successfully created and produced mainly gay-themed plays for six years.  The quality and selection of plays under Wayne and Sisco productions appears to be on track to serve an even larger audience, one that seeks to appeal to all valley theatre-goers – gay and straight, while still remaining true to its original mission statement.

“The Sugar Witch” story is set in the swampy environs of Florida, where the Bean family of Sugar Bean Florida live under an ancient family curse. The surviving members of the town’s founding family have finally reached the “tobacco road lifestyle” which can’t possibly get any worse. Then tragedy strikes in the form of a brutal murder that takes place in the Bean family home.

The crime places “Moses Bean” (Jacob Samples) and his sister “Sisser” Bean (Leanna Rodgers) in grave danger as “Annabelle” (Kimberly Cole) the last in a long line of so-called ‘Sugar Witches’ attempts to end the curse placed on the heads of the surviving Bean family by the dying words of Annabelle’s very own grandmother.

Dark family secrets are revealed, and unusual passions are ignited as the family confronts madness, truth, and the destructive legacy of racism as the spirit/ghosts walk the dark swamps, haunting the hearts of all who reside there. Its Southern authors like William Faulkner, James Dickey, Marilynne Robinson, and Attica Locke who relish writing this kind of backwoods mystery stories.

“The Sugar Witch,” written by Nathan Sanders, is solidly directed by Robbie Wayne and stars Kimberly Cole as Annabelle.  Ms. Cole delivers a riveting, steely-eyed, fascinating, performance as the Sugar Witch. Leanna Rodgers as “Sisser” renders a nice in-the-moment-portrayal, of a damaged woman with reality issues.   Jacob Samples as Moses Bean brings an honest quality of a man looking out for his sister while trying to come to grips with his inner emotions; trying to live by the law.  April Mejia (Ruth Ann Meeks, Kelly Peak as Hank Hartley and Tim McIntosh as Brother Meeks offer solid support.
The creative team led by director Robbie Wayne includes a wonderfully creative set by designer Toby Griffin.  The normally tiny stage at Desert Rose is turned into a splendid swamp and house that gives one the immediate feeling of being in rural Florida.  Kudos also go to Lighting Designer Phil Murphy who paints the set in mood inducing lights that enhance the creepiness of the action taking place on stage.  The costumes of Tim McIntosh also benefit from Murphy’s lighting plot.

“The Sugar Witch” performs at Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage and runs through October 28, 2018.  Call 760-202-3000 for ticket information.