“Let this be a challenge to you,” a quote from the book Up the Down Staircase and proclaimed by a character in the hilarious new comedy Rehearsals, could be the tagline for the show. In a production at Stained Glass Playhouse, the denizens of the fictional Wilmerton Community Theatre are assailed by challenges at every turn.

Winston-Salem area playwright Bill Cissna has written more than 20 short plays, has adapted some classics, and written five more full-length plays. Local theatre lovers can thank our lucky stars that Cissna has decided “to write something funny,” because Rehearsals is the result, and it is very funny, indeed.

Anybody who’s ever dabbled in community theatre – or been tempted to – can resonate with the nutty premise of Rehearsals. It’s a play about an imaginary community theatre, Wilmerton Community Theatre, produced here by a real community theatre, Stained Glass Playhouse.

Diana Marshall-Shoaf has directed the controlled chaos with a dab hand. There was never a dull moment on the stage from the first scene to the last, and Marshall-Shoaf has drawn memorable performances from the 13-person cast.

Cissna gets credit, too, for creating such crazy-making and sympathetic characters, drawn, no doubt, from his long and rich involvement with community theatre. In addition to writing plays, Cissna has written for many years in local periodicals about theatre, as both a feature reporter and a reviewer. AND, he is married to Kathy Anne Cissna, a well-known local theatre maven.

In the first scene, the full cast appears on the stage, loudly arguing about Oscar Wilde’s classic An Ideal Husband. They are three weeks out from opening night, and things are – to put it mildly – a hot mess.

The director, played necessarily loudly (he has to shout to get the actors’ attention) by Hampton Rowe, is completely out of control and about to stroke out. An elder actress, Maggie Waverly (played by the very good Pat Shumate), can’t remember her lines. Another actress, Bonnie Mooney (played by Amanda Chandler), won’t take the time to memorize her lines. The set designer, Orlando Parks (played by the adaptable Jeff Haste), hasn’t started on the sets. The producer, Elaine Booster (played by Maxine Isaacs), is tripling as props mistress and costume designer, because she can’t find or doesn’t trust anyone else to do the job.

The otherwise competent stage manager, Sally Solono (played by the above-mentioned Kathy Cissna), is being driven insane by the incompetence all around her.

“The stage manager is supposed to keep the wheels on the cart,” Sally declares, adding that the wheels are loose on everything in this show. In a production full of excellent physical comedians, Kathy Cissna exceled. She was completely fearless and committed – even when Sally is called to perform unexpected and unreasonable duties, including a cheerleader jump.

All of the characters in Rehearsals are called to go above and beyond at some point, and they do so to hilarious effect.

Chris Swaim, playing the lighting designer Dave Neptune, also performed great physical humor when Dave gets his big break, employing strange angular gestures to embody a character in Ideal Husband.

The wheels come completely off the cart in Act II, and producer Elaine has to boost everybody else. She has the soul of a cheerleader. Everything will be fine, she assures the director, the stage manager, and everyone else, even though she is about to lose her mind too. Isaacs as Elaine was able to change her expressions in a flash, and she has a thousand of them, including a drop-dead deadpan.

Mark March’s character is notable. He’s the one you’ll see reading the newspaper all through the chaotic rehearsal and not interacting with his fellow thespians. Playing Sam Montana, sports fan, he emerges in Husband as Lord Caversham, stuffy, proper, and flashy – but ultimately unhandy – with a cane.

Actors go missing, literally break their legs, and hit themselves in the head with a cane. Everybody murders a variety of inconsistent English and French accents. Costumes, sets, sound, and lights malfunction.

Everyone in the ensemble has something quirky to offer. Jane Lucas plays Josie Meers and Margo Marples, sturdy and steady ensemble players. Bob Montle is Art Jones and a Scottish butler with a mouthful of marbles (figuratively). Savannah Ritchey was lovely as the ingénue Diane, a foil to Scott Goad’s kinetic Jack (Jack and Diane; get it?). Mickey Hyland plays Edward Richardson, who loudly complains about his fellow actors’ shortcomings, but then comes up rather short himself; he was bluff, hearty, and stolid as Sir Robert Chiltern.

The artistic and production staff also has done a fine job bringing the small Stained Glass stage to life with serviceable set, lights, and sound. The whole production is surrounded and woven through by recordings of the Vitamin String Quartet, a group that plays popular music on violin, viola, and cello.

All’s well that ends well, as some old playwright said, and Rehearsals provides an evening of warm-hearted theatre with plenty of knee-slapping moments.

Rehearsals continues through Sunday, May 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.