Jason Cooper works with the script before rehearsal. | Photo by Eli Keel

When Pandora Productions opens Anthony Wilkinson’s “Big Gay Italian Midlife Crisis” on Thursday, they’ll be finishing a trilogy of popular plays by the New York playwright.

“Midlife” continues the story of Anthony Pinnunziato, the character Louisville first met in Pandora’s production of “My Big Gay Italian Wedding” and revisited when the company put on “My Big Gay Italian Funeral.” The trilogy centers not just around Pinnunziato, but on his family, friends and loved ones — a loud and hilarious group of Italian-Americans.

The show runs Jan. 12-22.

Insider caught up with guest director Jason Cooper, as well as actors Susan Crocker and Kristy Calman, before a rehearsal. As the three tried on wigs, the laughs and friendly environment spoke volumes about the rapport between the artists.

Cooper has performed with Pandora on and off for more than a decade, but this is his first time in the director’s chair for the company. In fact, the production marks Cooper’s first time directing a non-musical play. Crocker and Calman — both frequent performers for Pandora — are the only collaborators who have been around for every part of the “Big Gay” trilogy.

Cooper says one of the keys to bringing “Midlife” to the stage is his sense of comedy.

“This is my type of comedy,” he says. “I think I’ve left my fingerprints on it. It’s very broad — they’re real people, of course, but they are very big. It’s sitcom. Not to say there’s no heart — they wear their hearts on their sleeves.”

Calman suggests the tone is even broader.

“It’s over-the-top, almost soap-opera comedy,” she adds. “It’s Italian — we’re yelling in each others’ faces.”

While none of the cast Insider spoke with are Italian, Cooper says the dynamic in his Lebanese family echoes the big-family feel he tried get from the actors.

“Something happened organically where (the actors) started talking over each other, and I was like, ‘Yes, that is how they would function,’” says Cooper.

While he didn’t act in the previous installments, he says being an audience member was helpful to stepping into this show. “Having seen them, I knew what the tone should be.”

Susan Crocker looks at wig choices for her character. | Photo by Eli Keel

Crocker says the director set that tone in the first rehearsal.

“The first thing he said at the read-through was, ‘This is not high art,'” she says.

It’s been a fun process, according to Calman, who says, “You can really take it as far as you can go. With this type of show … it’s always push it as far as it can go, and if you go too far, the director will pull you back.”

Crocker adds, “He has yet to pull us back.”

These two actors’ longterm involvement with the trilogy made them a unique resource, one Cooper wasn’t afraid to utilize.

“They’re making connections for me and cast members who are new to the series,” he says. “They’ve made some lines make sense, because there are connections.” Cooper laughs and calls the two actors his “big gay Italian dramaturges.”

Michael Drury

Pandora Productions’ artistic director Michael Drury spoke warmly of Cooper via email.

“Jason and I say about each other that we are the funniest people we know, so for me, he’s the perfect choice to direct ‘Midlife.’” Drury, who has built and maintained Pandora’s place in the community, admits it isn’t always easy to delegate power. “It’s hard for me to give up the director chair, so it’s very important for me to bring in people I trust.”

Cooper hopes to continue spending time in the director’s chair — “I’ve got the bug,” he says.

After Insider’s interview, Pandora made an announcement that playwright Anthony Wilkinson would be traveling to Louisville for opening night of the play, on Thursday, Jan. 12. Insider checked back with Cooper to see if he had retained his cool demeanor.

“I’m eager to hear what he thinks, particularly if anything took him by surprise,” says Cooper. “And yes, I’m very nervous about it.”

On Monday, Jan. 16, you can get another example of Drury’s commitment to welcoming new artists into the fold and growing Louisville’s theater community. Pandora will present a reading of playwright Brian Walker’s play “CPR on the Lost Continent.” The reading is part of the “Playdates with Pandora” reading series.

Director Jason Cooper has found his wig. | Photo by Eli Keel

“Brian is such an amazing talent, and I’m honored he’d let us have his play in our ‘PlayDates’ series,” said Drury.

“My Big Gay Italian Mid-Life Crisis” runs Jan. 12-14 and 19-21 at 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 15 and 22 at 5:30 p.m., with the only matinee set for Jan. 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, and $22 day of show.

“Playdates with Pandora” will present “CPR on the Lost Continent” on Monday, Jan. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are pay-what-you-can at the door.

All performances take place at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St.