Friday, June 20, 2003

Till death do us part: Even if you're mean and surly

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When partners take that pledge on their wedding day, and even more so when children are born into a mutual pledge of love — or at least tolerance — it is easy not to remark upon the actual commitment such a promise entails. Raynelle (Sheila Shay) has been doing the honoring for " 39 years, 39 long years " when her husband Bud dies in the opening moments of Dearly Departed.

She and Bud had turned from each other’s hearts long ago, with " not so much as a warm handshake in 33 years, " but Raynelle and her family remain determined to do right by their deceased patriarch.

The play peeks briefly at the issues involved in the ending of a lifelong commitment and the requisite self-reflections. But it mainly sticks to stereotypical white-trash shallowness and bellyaching about life’s misfortunes. There is precious little mourning for the man who begat so many unfortunate creatures.

The play is an odd one, founded as it is on stereotypes of Southern life and Southern people. It was written in 1991, the first play for either of the pair of Kentuckians who gave the script life.

In the Waterville Opera House’s studio theater, however, the play struggles to survive. The problem is really the surroundings, which are impoverished compared to the beautiful renovations that have been made to the rest of the landmark building.

The seats are not elevated properly, meaning anybody further back than the third row must strain to catch a glimpse of the action. And the chairs are shoddy, at best — some are blocked off and visibly broken, while at least one actually gave way with a loud CRACK during a recent production, overly strained by the contortions of its occupant to lay eyes on the actors.

Worse still, the acoustics are dismal, requiring a massive tandem effort of projection and enunciation to make any words audible. It is helpful that most of the dialogue is delivered from a standing position, with actors in a back-stoop scene standing and sitting to alternately speak and listen.

The atmosphere was made even worse by the audience, who — perhaps as a result of the advanced age of many of them — took every opportunity to converse with each other. Three notes to those who wish to keep their seats in most theaters around the globe: Scene changes, no matter how long, are not your cue to take a turn at a speaking role. Second, actors in rehearsal may need help beginning a line. After the line is delivered, especially during a show, it is not helpful or polite to repeat it. And third, when something comes to mind that you simply must say, realize that nobody in the room is there to listen to you.

And a note to theater managers and ushers: Movie houses expressly ask their audiences not to talk during the movie, and turn up the sound in case people ignore them. In the absence of amplification, it would seem sensible to make a specific request — either in person before the show, or in the program — to refrain from dialogue during the performance.

There are nice touches in this production, including a clever scene in a car, with three hayseed children painted on a canvas representing the back seat. An overbearingly religious woman (Marguerite, played by Doree Austin) bellows each time she speaks of her Lord and Savior or reads from the Holy Book. An entire character (Delightful, the all-consuming daughter, played by Joel Gagne) is included, whose sole purpose is disgusting comic relief, and whose audition must have consisted of an eating contest at a Shoney’s midnight buffet.

The acting is strong, the comedy is funny, and there is poignancy at all the right moments. In particular, the conflicted bitter belle Suzanne (Marty Kelley) and her failed-entrepreneur husband Junior (Tom Dix) are hilarious. Raynelle and her son Ray-Bud (John Bolduc) are perhaps the most " normal " of the characters, allowing room for everyone to identify with someone in the show. The cast’s theater newcomers and old-timers (if they’ll forgive the expression) work well together and play off each other nicely.

The ending, however, drags on. Closing a comedy is no simple task, and for novice playwrights to have done it perfectly would be a real stunner. It is, however, a surprise that the veteran actors at ACAT didn’t adapt it slightly. All the loose ends are gathered, all the bonds retied, but at what price? A play nearly 15 minutes longer than it needed to be, with at least three consecutive endings all tagged together.

A special note: Two of the cast, Kelly Camp-Force (playing Nadine, a pregnant mom of several, none by the same dad) and Tom Kelleher (playing Royce, a vacant and lazy young man whose career aspirations are to stay on unemployment until he can get married, become a father, and go on welfare) just finished the high school academic year. Their strong performances show their theatrical futures will far outstrip the characters they played, though that’s not really saying much.

Dearly Departed
Written by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones. Directed by Mark Nadeau. With Sheila Shay, John Bolduc, Tom Dix, and Doree Austin. At Aqua City Actors Theater, in Waterville, through June 21. Call (207) 580-6783.


• Best wishes and a speedy recovery to Linda J. Bruce, Waterville Junior High School teacher and drama club leader. Also an actor in productions throughout central Maine, she recently was hospitalized for a sudden, serious condition.

• Summer theater-fruit reminders: The Cast at the St. Lawrence June 19, 21, and 22; Light up the Sky at the Gaslight in Hallowell June 19 through 21 and 26 through 28; Macbeth at Spring Point starting June 25.