When the Banyan Theatre Company was launched in 2002 to fill the void of theater fare during Sarasota's summer months, it aimed to present an alternative to the light comedies and musicals that are mainstays of the snowbird season.
But in recent years, selections for its three-play season have strayed from the meatier work of Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill toward productions designed to elicit a steady stream of laughter, as well as the occasional tug on the heartstrings.
That was true of 2011's "Becky's New Car" and it is the case with French playwright Gérard Sibleyras's comedy "Heroes," the second of the Banyan's 2013 offerings.
The story about three aging French World War I veterans plotting an escape from the old soldier's home is closer in tone to the Walter Matthau film "Grumpy Old Men" than Chekhov's "The Three Sisters." But that doesn't mean the Banyan has gone soft, says Jerry Finn, the company's founder and executive director.
"No, I have not changed the concept," says Finn about the Banyan's original mission to present serious dramas. "I do have subscribers who come up and ask, 'Why aren't you doing more Ibsen? Where is the heavy stuff?' I chose this play because I like everything about it."
Yet Finn readily admits there are constraints that have turned his selections in a slightly different direction — most notably his budget. It was only six months ago that the Banyan teetered on a financial brink after the leave-taking of its artistic director, Carole Kleinberg, and the resignation of the majority of its board members. A fundraising drive that netted $50,000 last December allowed the 2013 season to go on.
"Many of the classic writers, they have casts of a dozen or 15 characters and we just can't produce that," Finn says. "The other thing we have to consider is the size of the (Cook Theatre) stage. This is a very small theater. So with this theater and with our budget, I've had to go a little farther afield to put tushies in the seats."
Still, Finn maintains the company is presenting thought-provoking, meaningful theater, designed to make the audience think as well as chuckle.
"I am not doing musicals or light comedy," he says. "The plays have to have a message."
The humor here comes from the foibles of the three men, who are approaching their 70s and are damaged in various ways, both emotionally and physically.
Gustave, who will be played by Peter Thomasson, a veteran of four previous Banyan productions, is the boastful bully of the trio, as confined by his emotional fears as by the residence's four walls. Henri — played by Joseph Parra, a regular with American Stage in St. Petersburg — has a bad leg and a lack of confidence, but a positive outlook. Alan Kitty, who recently moved to the area from New Jersey, will be making his Banyan debut as Philippe, who veers between lucidity and dementia caused by a piece of shrapnel that remains in his head from the war.
Thomasson admits he was a little surprised when he read the "Heroes" script. Both his familiarity with the work of British playwright Tom Stoppard, who translated from the original French script, and his previous work at the Banyan set him up for something darker and more intellectual.
Thomasson's first role here, in 2006, was in William Nicholson's "Retreat from Moscow," a painful portrait of the emotional fallout as a three-decade marriage comes to an end.
"That's a great play and I would do it again anywhere, but it was heavy, very heavy," says Thomasson, a Georgia resident and a company member of the Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Meyers.
He also appeared in Banyan productions of Ibsen's "Ghosts" and last year's "A Lesson from Aloes," neither of which could be considered light-hearted fare. But both "Heroes" and "Becky's New Car," in which he appeared in 2011, have depth beneath the surface, he says.
"This is not the kind of comedy where you go for a laugh," he says. "It's not slapstick farce. It comes out of the characters dealing with a situation. The humor comes from telling the truth and that's the irony."
Thomasson, who "pulled a high draft number" that allowed him to avoid serving in Vietnam, has no wartime experience. Nor does director Dan Higgs, who served in the Naval Reserve for eight years. But Higgs believes the poignancy of the characters has less to do with their war experience than their life experience.
"I think it's especially relevant to our audiences here, a majority of whom are in this age range," he says. "They will identify with certain things, not necessarily the war veteran part, but the parts about aging."
And there is much more to the script than a bunch of one-liners, he maintains.
"It's comedy, yes, and there is laughter in it, but there's more going on than just that," Higgs says. "There's drama. There's pathos.
"It ain't Neil Simon, I can tell you that."
HEROES, by Gérard Sibleyras (translated by Tom Stoppard), directed by Dan Higgs for the Banyan Theater Company. July 18-Aug. 4 at the Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail. $8 (students with ID) to $28.50. 351-2808; www.banyantheatercompany.com.