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Sponsorships and donations may be down, but that's not stopping cast and crew at Cedar City's Neil Simon Festival from inviting audiences to enjoy some comedy.
"Laughter is good hygiene and, to borrow a phrase from Reader's Digest , 'laughter is good medicine,' " said actor Anita "Jo" Lenhart, who's performing in the festival's "Harvey." "We've got to laugh. Laughter makes the heart grow stronger, fuller. It's very healing."
The actor, an associate theater professor at the University of Memphis, discovered the festival after a former student called her to ask if she was available for a summer role. Acting in the festival has "helped me remember how good of a writer [Neil Simon] is," Lenhart said. "It's also made me realize how good and uplifting comedy can be."
The festival, now in its seventh season, offers three shows: two by Simon -- "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" and "Biloxi Blues" -- and a non-Simon play, "Harvey," the classic comedy about a man who sees an imaginary friend, a 6 1/2-foot rabbit. "Red Hot Lovers," the story of a middle-aged man wanting to join the sexual revolution, debuted in 1969 at New York's Eugene O'Neill Theatre. "Biloxi Blues," which premiered in 1985, is the middle of the playwright's semi-autobiographical trilogy, featuring Eugene Morris Jerome, considered Simon's alter ego.
Richard Bugg, founder and artistic director, said the festival -- which is thought to be the only one in the country devoted to Simon's plays -- has been growing slowly. Bugg, a Simon fan and theater professor at Southern Utah University, launched the festival in 2003 with a budget of $35,000.
Despite the economic downturn and a decrease in contributions, ticket sales are up slightly this year over last year. "We're just sort of hanging on by our fingernails," Bugg said. "But of all times, we need laughter more now than ever."
Staff considered skipping a season to save costs, but didn't want to turn away regular theatergoers. "I hope we are in the black at the end of the season," Bugg said. "We have no plans to shut down. We are determined to keep going."
The Neil Simon Festival continues through Aug. 15 at the Heritage Theatre, 105 N. 100 East, Cedar City. Tickets, $20, are available at 435-327-8673 or http://www.simonfest.org" Target="_BLANK">http://www.simonfest.org. Curtain is at 2 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.