People who are older often describe themselves — or are described by others — as "set in their ways." How do we get that way, though? Playwright Lanford Wilson’s 1970 work Serenading Louie offers an answer with his tale of lost souls.
The title springs from "The Whiffenpoof Song," the song of the men’s a cappella group at Yale — where three of the play’s characters went to college. The song’s lyrics talk of friends gathering at a bar where a man named Louie is a fixture. The friends are "little black sheep who have gone astray," and "Gentleman songsters off on a spree/ Doomed from here to eternity."
These characters, the Whiffenpoofs sing, "will serenade our Louie while life and voice shall last/ Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest."
That is what Alex and Gabby (Chris Holt and Phoenix contributor Caitlin Shetterly) and Carl and Mary (John Linscott and Paula Vincent) see in their own futures. They wrestle against it, remembering their younger years, filled with promise and adventure. "The smallest thing that ever happened was an event" back then, Carl remembers.
And big things that happened unified the country, like the tragedy of Kathy Fiscus, a 3-year-old girl who fell into an abandoned well in 1949. The story of the rescue effort was one of the first ever broadcast live on television, and had people around the globe glued to their radios for nearly 50 hours, Carl recalls. More than just a shared past, though, it is a sign to Carl of how immortality can be earned through tragedy.
Now their lives are stuck. In their early thirties, married, with decent jobs and clear — if conventional — futures ahead of them, they want to reclaim past potential before they enter into historical oblivion.
Gabby, the aptly named, insecure chatterbox (played cleverly by Shetterly, whose tortured facial expressions and simpering advances toward Alex are both deeply human and singularly superficial) drives Alex crazy. Shetterly’s performance is so strong, I wanted to strangle her, as did a man sitting just in front of me in the audience. "I’d kill myself" in Alex’s place, he said during the scene change.
Alex, her husband, is wrenchingly torn between wanting to follow his dreams and wanting to reclaim his past. In the meantime, though, he is forced to endure Gabby’s meandering monologues, which drive him to distraction. Holt conveys this tearing of his spirit very well, fuming visibly but silently, then exploding and contracting again, inside his shell.
Mary and Carl are similarly glued to their spots. Mary, an emotional recluse, lovingly bosses Carl around a lot, and he is deeply depressed. Linscott’s glowering aspect sheds light on his deeper inclinations, and gives the lie to his statement that he is unable to feel any emotions.
They are indeed set in their ways. As much as a result of this as an antidote to it, suspicions of infidelity arise, leading all four to question their positions in life. Carl believes most people can’t handle life in the late 20th century. He argues that self-sacrifice, seen by many as an ancient pagan ritual modern people have moved beyond, is not dead nor gone. Instead, it has changed form.
As the lights rise and fall and the four actors explore the simple, homey living-room set, their anguish also ebbs and flows. Carl first covers his pain at his wife’s infidelity by talking of sweet nothings and remembering the past. Linscott’s gentle dancing around the real subject lasts just long enough to let Vincent’s gentle, secretive Mary slip away.
It is the last time the two connect as friends. The next time will be after the confrontation is over, after Carl’s pain prevents him from even looking at his wife. Tessy Seward, here in her first directing effort — and having replaced original director Mel Howards over "artistic differences" — has a clear vision for where these characters are heading.
Mary views her love as a self-sacrifice. Not only has she gone willingly to the altar to begin the ritual, but she finds the blissful rapture of love only seconds before it is too late.
When Gabby learns of Alex’s indiscretion, Shetterly transforms from a weak, vacillating girl into a woman in full roar. She demands a response from Holt, who stays well within his character’s reserved façade, but worries more about others than himself.
These couples are indeed "on the eve of destruction," as suggested by the song playing before the show begins. And though destruction can also bring rebirth, that will not happen on this stage. Their passing remains inevitable. All that Carl changes with his gun is the length of time society will take to forget.Serenading Louie
Written by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Tessy Seward. With Chris Holt, John Linscott, Caitlin Shetterly, and Paula Vincent. Produced by Winter Harbor Theatre Company at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, Portland, through June 5. Call (207) 775-3174.
• Mike Levine reports that a search for shared rehearsal, classroom, and performance space is moving along, and is likely to find a home in South Portland, where the city government is apparently willing to work with the group to promote the arts.
• Twenty-two high-school-aged actors at The Theater Project are inviting the public to see the world through their eyes. They have written and produced, and will perform, Voices in the Mirror, from Friday, June 4, through Sunday, June 6.