No tune-ups necessary

by

comment

Becky’s New Car arrived at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte last week, fully loaded and finely tuned. Amazingly, pretty much the same could be said at Theatre Charlotte, Davidson College, and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. Productions there also boasted engaging scripts and deep casts. What’s different about the current attraction at Stonewall Street? It’s new, and it’s funny.

Catherine Smith plays the title role in Stephen Dietz’s mid-life comedy, overextended at home and at work – and unfulfilled. We first see her engaged in household drudgery, sounding querulous and irritating for all her energy and good cheer. Becky Foster has a warm, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth roofer for a husband, and in Billy Ensley’s excellent portrayal, Joe’s concerns about working overtime come off as caring rather than self-centered or sexist. The couple indulges the continued residence of their grown-up son, Chris, a 26-year-old who may be finding himself in the study of clinical psychology. Or not. Chris is capable of spewing a steady stream of diagnoses and psychobabble as his frustrated mom attempts to torch his incessant malingering, but Patrick Hogan, in a marvelously insouciant Actor’s Theatre debut, happily allows the aspiring psychologist to babble on with zero insight.

Becky is often seen fluttering up and down a curving ramp at stage right, where she spends late hours in the title office of a thriving auto dealership on the brink of expansion. On one of these nights, a rich billboard tycoon named Walter Flood, with literally more money than he knows what to do with, manages to invade Becky’s office and, in a capricious impulse, orders up nine cars as gifts for his employees. Walter is a strange admixture of absent-minded goofiness, affluent isolation, vulnerability, and inbred bossiness, given expert plausibility by Jerry Colbert. He finds in Becky, whom he insists on calling Rebecca, a kindred spirit, since he is grieving over his dead wife and too domineering for Becky to inform him that she isn’t. Of course, if you saw Colbert in Big Boys last season, you already know that he excels in this sort of plutocratic high-handedness.

The 2010 edition is a softer, more romantic plutocrat, further overextending Becky’s life. While Act 1 often finds the career woman doing brisk laps circling back and forth from home and the office, Act 2 inserts Flood’s estate on Staten Island into the rotation. Already elevated to star status at the showroom as a result of her stunning salesmanship – she’s to receive a new car if she agrees to a promotion at the new branch location – Becky is enticed by Walter’s admiration and the glamor of his estate. Earnestly rationalizing her infidelity, Becky embarks on a double life that she must frantically hide from her darling, supportive husband. Dietz revs up the comedy and the complications in Act 2 by impossibly infolding the plot, so that Joe is roofing Walter’s house and Chris is jogging with his daughter (Abigail Pagán).

We’re not bothered by all these unlikelihoods because they accumulate gradually – and because Becky repeatedly fractures the fourth wall from the first moment we see her with mop and pail. She asks for various kinds of assistance and advice from us as the plot thickens, most memorably when she asks three women in the crowd to help her get dressed up for her first tryst with Walter. At the same time that we’re being delighted by all this broad stuff, Becky is growing more intrepid and self-assured, capable of genuine enjoyment by the time her new car arrives.

In her directorial debut, Sheila Snow Proctor admirably controls the mayhem. Every comedy bomb detonates perfectly, particularly when the time comes for our Average Joe to assert himself. Hallie Gray’s lighting, Jamey Varnadore’s costumes, and Chip Decker’s sound design operate with the same precision. But Dietz has also lavished some very fine craftsmanship on the script. A woebegone salesman at the showroom (Mike Corrigan) and a poverty-stricken socialite after Walter’s millions (Katherine Harrison) deftly steer our sympathies toward Becky. Perhaps the subtlest touches are reserved for a character we never see, the frustrated car buyer Mrs. Tipton, who surely evokes the unseen the title character of the famed Millionaire radio and TV series. Her early telephone calls showcase Becky’s empathy and frazzled impatience, but in the end, she makes Dietz’s wacky denouement possible by giving our heroine a sudden chance at a totally new life.

Up in Davidson, the Theatre Department’s well of talent hasn’t run dry in their latest production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Most of the collegians in the key roles were making their Davidson debuts at the spacious Duke Family Performance Hall – in front of sellout crowds by the time the weekend rolled around. Only a couple of adults anchored the cast 23, with 17 newbies.

The stage adaptation of Austen’s romance by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan had a lordly running time of 2:20, so while the pacing was brisk, character development was surprisingly full. Nor did the maturation of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy seem excessively rushed as they overcame their mutual misgivings toward each other and yielded to one another’s charms and virtues. Austen aficionados would be pleased to hear the language of the pivotal dialogues so diligently preserved – and perhaps tickled to find some of dear Jane’s narrative bon mots deftly transposed and worked into the fabric of the conversation.

Samantha Krusi, with luminous energy and luxuriant hair, was finely controlled in every word she uttered – while her face was a veritable encyclopedia of expression and emotion. Slightly Roman and Napoleonic in his bearing, Paul DiFiore was still a younger, softer Darcy than the ideal, more convincing in his attraction to Elizabeth than in his aversion toward her family and class. Of course, with Madison Rigger triple underlining all the faults of Elizabeth’s silly, chatterbox mother at clangorous volume, there was little need for Darcy to emphasize his distaste. Rigger’s hilarious rants came close to upstaging Krusi’s finesse, but all three of these debuts were highly auspicious.

Josh Peklo provided elegant set designs for the 18th century interiors, and director Ann Marie Costa used the big stage brilliantly, often pouring the action into the orchestra when we adjourned to the outdoors. Todd Wrenn’s lighting design shed perpetual sunshine on the sumptuous costumes by Bob Coghan and Heidi O’Hare, and Sam Van Hallgren spun the entire Mozart catalogue in his sound design until the denouement, turning to Debussy when lively wit ripened into romantic mush. The whole grand circle between Darcy’s proud, arrogant marriage proposal at the end of Act 1, and his humbled, heartfelt re-take on his petition at the end of Act 2 was enough to make a grown man cry.

It certainly piqued this critic’s interest in Davidson College’s upcoming production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, opening at the more intimate Barber Theatre in two weeks.

I’m not sure about real magnolias, but Steel Magnolias is enough of a perennial hereabouts for the Robert Harling comedy-tearjerker to sprout up no fewer than four times in the surrounding Metrolina area – in Belmont, Concord, Gastonia, and Rock Hill – since CP staged the last Charlotte production in 2002. Nor can I guess whether Pat Heiss and Ginger Heath have eluded my radar in the intervening years and appeared in one or more of those out-of-town productions, but I’m sure that the current version at Theatre Charlotte marks the second or third time that I’ve seen Heath as the affluent, optimistic former mayor’s wife, Clairee Belcher, and Heiss as the crusty town curmudgeon, Ouiser Boudreaux. By now, they know the characters as well as the playwright, who drew them from his childhood memories.

Under the direction of Paige Johnston Thomas, the whole cast has the lovable quirkiness and fortitude of the ladies down pat. Gillian Albinski’s split-level set design for Truvy Jones’s beauty parlor meshes beautifully with Suzy Harkness’s slightly tacky costumes. What pleases me most is how resolutely Thomas turns the fourth wall into a giant invisible mirror, so Truvy and her patrons never have to look away from us to address each other. Yes, conversing with faux mirror images turns a lot of the key dramatic moments from pointed face-to-face dialogue into group portraits, but this semi-formal togetherness pays rich dividends at the end when group solidarity becomes so important in dealing with personal grief.

Dealing with the make-believe mirror has to be stretching even Heiss and Heath, but the whole cast makes the counterintuitive process look natural. Kathryn Stamas and Keely Williams get the family chemistry right, Stamas as the fretful mom, M’Lynn Eatenton, and Williams as her devil-may-care diabetic daughter, Shelby. Williams chafes decorously under the restraints her mom and her condition place upon her, never diluting her defiance of mom’s wishes with even the slightest malice. This gracious nonchalance weighs heavily when Stamas lets loose with her furious lament deep in Act 2.

The hairdressing duo may be different from what you’re used to if you’ve visited Chinquapin, Lousisiana, and Truvy’s beauty salon before. Catherine Upchurch isn’t as down-to-earth as any of the Truvys that I’ve seen in the past, and Lauren Dortch Crozier isn’t as dim/dorky/ditzy as her new assistant, Annelle, newly graduated from the school of hard knocks. So it was actually surprising when this Truvy announced, “My personal tragedy will not get in the way of doing good hair,” and Annelle’s religiosity was not totally laughable. Nice new wrinkles, if you ask me.

They’re offering free pocket tissue packs as you get your playbills at Theatre Charlotte for Steel Magnolias. Ladies are well advised to accept the offer and open those tissue packs before the lights go down.

Add a comment