Friday, March 19, 2004

A love untold: Sharing hidden joys and sorrows makes Good Theater

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The daily tension of dreams vs. reality can be overwhelming. Some couples dwell inside themselves, holing up and committing to a fate — whether blissful or turbulent — completely tied to each other, with few friends or family members keeping watch, armed with lifesaving rings to throw to sinking partnerships.

Others retain strong ties to people outside the partnership, drawing strength, relief, and perspective from extramarital wisdom. Outside perspectives have helped save relationships and salvaged individuals from shipwrecked love.

Into this messy world, Good Theater brings Same Time Next Year, a play in which two married people seek refuge in each other, though their wedding vows were to others. The two, who meet in a chance restaurant encounter in 1951, devise a unique way to get a break from their marriages, and find some solace and perspective.

We follow the couple, Doris (Lee K. Paige) and George (Stephen Underwood), through 24 years of annual weekend reunions, as they explore each other and themselves (doesn’t that sound sexy?), and as their lives and worlds change. The story revisits them roughly every five years, making plain what would otherwise be incremental changes in personality and society, not to mention appearance.

Paige and Underwood are both excellent laugh-line deliverers, and alternate in the role of straightman to the other’s funny man. But the biggest laugh-getter at a performance last weekend was actually in Good Theater artistic director Brian Allen’s intermission speech. Apologizing for several technical glitches — not to mention the black piece of Styrofoam that quit blocking light from an exterior window and instead fell on the head of an audience member, Allen draw guffaws and applause with: "We’re glad you’re here to share our pain."

And while some of the problems stole a bit from the show, Underwood and Paige performed mightily, demanding audience members’ attention turn to them and away from whatever was going wrong. After intermission, all was well, and what could have been a distracted, failed set of climactic scenes was instead a wonderful romp through laughter, into heartbreak and tears, and back again.

Apart from the comic lines playwright Bernard Slade has supplied, the play depends on the connection between the two actors.

Paige and Underwood show their skills, transforming through the play from blushing, teen-like first meetings into the solidity that only comes with time.

They expertly marry humor and relief — the weekends they spend together seem truly a vacation for each — with phone calls from home, stories of the past year, and the guilt that racks them even as they try to indulge in pleasure.

As the relationship deepens, it becomes more than an annual one-night stand, providing each the comfort of familiar company and a simultaneous escape from quotidian stressors. They provide new perspectives on each other as they grow up together and apart.

It is in the fourth act, just after intermission, that the characters collide most spectacularly. In 1965, the newly liberated Doris is an adult student at Berkeley and marching and rallying with the best of them. George, on the other hand, is a year past voting for Goldwater and still thinks the nuke-the-Vietnamese presidential candidate was right.

Doris’s affable greeting that year, "Hey babe! Whaddya say? Wanna fuck?" is met with stentorian disbelief from CPA George, forcing the two actors to suddenly not rejoice in each other’s presence.

But it is in that same scene, as Doris gently calls out George’s fears, that we see the true power of the love they share. Unable to mourn a huge loss properly at home, George finds tears in Doris’s arms.

Five years later, in act five, they are completely different characters again, testing the range of Paige and Underwood — who are well known for their ability to play diverse roles.

Underwood shows gentleness in place of his former cold heart, even talking Doris’s husband down from a marital high ledge. And Paige has reformed her belligerent student ways, now running a growing business and finding power within.

Costume-designer Joan McMahon is also put to the test. George’s suit of 1961 has turned to a dashiki, just as Doris’s flower-child flowing hair and dress have become more conservative.

As we watch the annual confessional visits of this torn-but-loving couple, we share heartbreak and triumph, lonely bitter moments and sweet tender times. We exult in their mutual joy, hope they can keep the secret of their love, and our hearts break with theirs as time and life take their due.

A story of these two people’s actual marriages would be less compelling than the tale of their hidden romance. And yet we get that, too, learning about their spouses and families from their annual stories of the past year. And we remember that most important, though rarely spoken, promise of true commitment: "If you won’t make me laugh, just hold my hand."

Same Time Next Year
Written by Bernard Slade. Directed by William Steele. With Lee K. Paige and Stephen Underwood. Produced by Good Theater at St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through April 4. Call (207) 885-5883.


• Congrats to the Camden Opera House for investing in their space, to make the historic building even better for modern uses. They have renovated the backstage area, updating rigging, rehanging lights, and replacing drapes. The stage is five feet deeper and the drapes now hide the off-stage areas from the audience. And for audience members, there are new climate-control and fire-alarm systems for comfort and safety.