Janet Wasser (far right) is one of the stars in “The Most Deserving,” a tart, satirical comedy about what happens when the arts collide with sex, class and politics, now at the Allens Lane Art Center Theater through March 18. (Photo by Tom Ryan)

by Rita Charleston

“The Most Deserving,” a play written by Catherine Trieschmann and directed by Nancy Kreider, continues at the Allens Lane Art Center Theater, 601 W. Allens Lane, through March 18. The plot centers on five members of the arts council in Ellis County, Kansas. The council has $20,000 to award to a deserving artist, but there aren’t that many artists around. And besides, they are having trouble deciding what constitutes “deserving.”

Everyone has a motive for supporting his or her candidate. Should it be the self-taught artist who creates religious figures out of trash or the teacher/painter of modest talent? Unfortunately, the motives used to pick the “most deserving” are fueled more by pragmatism, hatred or petty score settling than by aesthetic appreciation.

In the role of Jolene Atkinson, head of the council, is Janet Wasser, 60. “Jolene’s job is a full-time pursuit for her, and she’s trying to hold the council together singlehandedly. Her job is super-important to her and part of her identity,” said Wasser. “She’s an interesting character, but all the characters in this play are interesting and very well written.”

A native of Texas who moved to the San Francisco Bay area after graduating from the University of Oregon, Wasser began doing a lot of community theater work. She met her husband Martin, an engineer from Philadelphia, while living there, and eventually the couple married and moved back to her husband’s hometown to live and work. That was more than 30 years ago, and since then Wasser has appeared in many local theaters in such productions as “Pack of Lies,” “Something Unspoken,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “Romeo and Juliet” and many others.

“I love doing this particular role because I do believe the arts are extremely important,” Wasser said. “People in Philadelphia really want to support the arts, but that’s not the case everywhere. In some quarters they seem to be less and less important with funds being cut. And because of her commitment, I feel close to Jolene.

“But even if I didn’t, I’d still do my best to make her come to life. That’s the job of the actor. I try to never judge a character I’m playing but rather look for a reason to explain why they are doing what they’re doing. I feel as though everyone wants to feel whatever they do in life is important. Jolene’s no different, and I can identify with that.”

With two grown children who have now left the nest, Wasser’s enjoying acting full-time, even though in the past she’s held various jobs. She also enjoys history and combining the two, which is why her role as Mary Todd Lincoln with Beacon Historical Productions in Glenside is especially satisfying. “Also satisfying is becoming art of a collaborative effort working with others to create a work of art.”

And if there is a message to “The Most Deserving,” Wasser says it is this: “I think it’s a very important message, which is just how important art is in our society and that we should fight for it. If you take away the arts — the music, the theater — you’re taking away a lot of potential for young people.”

For tickets or more information, call 215-248-0546 or visit www.allenslane.org.

Ed.note: Playwright Catherine Trieschmann is originally from Athens, Georgia, but she now lives in a small town in western Kansas. She has written eight plays, which have been produced Off-Broadway and in numerous cities in the U.S. as well as in Australia, England, Australia and Scotland. She is the recipient of the Weissberger Award, the Otis Guernsey New Voices Playwriting Award from the Inge Theatre Festival,and twice won the Edgerton New Play Award. She also wrote the screenplay for the film “Angel’s Crest,” which premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and was released by Magnolia Pictures.