The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Love Songs for the Road: Take 3

            As the I Ching often states, “persistence furthers.” And playwright Patti Wray is nothing if not persistent, as her signature work, Love Songs for the Road—in development for many years—realizes its first full production at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.
            Unfortunately for those who haven’t seen it, the production closes today, July 15. But having myself seen four or five readings of varying versions of this play over the years, I have to say it’s getting better, and the actors are having fewer problems interpreting it.
            The Thinking Dog has summarized the plot before, beginning with a review from September, 2009, still available in the archives of this site. Not much has changed in that regard, except that older brother Martin is no longer motivated by gambling debts.
            But here comes problem number one. What is Martin’s motivation for wanting to “save Mama”? This has plagued Wray from the start, and in this version it’s still not clear whether he’s called by God to defend his mother’s honor and his father’s memory or simply covets his mother’s inherited assets. In either case, he’s a sicko who needs therapy but probably will never admit it. That much about his character is quite clear. What makes him that way remains less so.
            George Goff, who plays Martin, struggles unevenly with his character’s authoritarian force, as if he sometimes isn’t up to the intensity it takes to be that hard-headed. Or is it hard-hearted?
            Meanwhile, little brother Stu and middle child Carol struggle with what the right thing to do might be as big brother takes over their mother’s life and fortune. The core of the issue is her relationship with her boarder and paramour, a truck driver 20 years her junior named Jim, whose existence Martin especially resents.
            That relationship, of course, is the heart of the story, and four actors take it on heartily, playing Jim and Ellie in former years and Jim and Ellie in the present, after Ellie has broken her hip and Martin has blocked all visitors from her hospital room except for him and his wife (an offstage character). That high-handed act breaks off Ellie’s relationship with Jim and begins a period of torment for both of them, while Stu and Carol wring hands.
            I found the hand-wringing scenes more static than functional in moving the play forward. They repeat the same concerns like a Greek chorus. Maybe that’s their analogous function.
            In any case, Jonathan Hite as Stu and Mary Lou Mahlman as Carol struggle at times to bring variety to their repeating cycle of anxiety. But they finally agree that Stu has been right all along about Martin’s corrupt practices, and the family comes together against Martin to support Jim as Ellie’s legal guardian. The success of that plan trumps Martin’s forged power-of-attorney over her assets, and when the dust settles Ellie and Jim are back together again, free and clear.
            It’s a very touching story, and as played by Beth Pivirotto and Andy Stowe (Older Ellie and Jim) and Candy Dennis and Garney Johnson (Younger Ellie and Jim), it comes alive as never before—the devotion of the older couple to each other, the electricity between the younger couple as their love unfolds. Particularly well crafted is the back-and-forth between Dennis and Johnson as the sexual tension rises. It’s hot, and it makes the play a play, since all else revolves around it.
            But no more touching scene occurs than when Jim, home at last, helps Ellie on her cane to a seat on the porch, where they cuddle in the sun like two love doves. Audiences coo with them, and so do I.
            If that sounds like sentimentality, be reassured, as Wray and others attest, her story’s true. But as The Thinking Dog speculated after last year’s staged reading, that may also prevent Wray from breaking totally free of it, since it happened so close to her in her own extended family. Therein lies the challenge—to translate a bitter family feud into art. In Love Songs, the artistic kernel is present in the love story, which Pivirotto, Stowe, Dennis, and Johnson bring alive. No actor is better than the script. Perhaps working with a professional director who is also a dramaturge is the next best step for Wray to take with this play to smooth out its rough edges and perfect its final shape.
            Credit must go to the Little Theatre of Norfolk for producing this new work. That includes director Jason C. Martens, whose interesting choices include a fantasy reunion between Elder Jim and Ellie which allows the audience to warm up to their relationship before they come back together in real time. (But Elder Ellie and Younger Ellie should have shared a similar southern accent.)
            The simple set designed by Martens and Leigh Strenger is adequate support for the action, enhanced in B. Butterbaugh’s lighting and Kat Fresh’s costumes. The effulgent flower boxes across the set’s downstage edge place us at once in the working class neighborhood of a small city, where the story takes place.
            Finally, mention must be made of Jerry Sheeley’s brief turn as Brock, the attorney Ellie’s family hires to wrest control of Ellie’s care and fortune away from Martin and give it to Jim. Sheeley’s humorous blend of savvy lawyer and human being proves the old theater adage that there is no such thing as a small role.
            Love Songs for the Road has been developed in the Virginia Playwrights Forum, of which Wray is a co-manager. The Forum meets periodically—usually once a month—at The Venue on 35th, a cozy Norfolk theatrical hide-away of which Wray is co-owner.
            The next full production of a Forum play will be Jean Kline’s Refractions of Light, playing at The Venue Aug. 3-12. For more information go to