Betty, the matriarch of a comfortable Irish Catholic family played by Stephanie Hepburn in Denis McKeown's new play Companions, is a force of nature. Betty's friends and family orbit her like planets around a life-giving sun. They're her husband Hank (Joe Cooper); her Yuppie son John (Brian Mooney); and her friends, the lugubrious widow Marge (Carol Lambert), the maddeningly cheerful Ruth (Anne Campbell), and her husband Tom (Paul Haller). The play begins just before Betty's New Year's Eve party some time in the '80s. John pops over to wish his parents good tidings; Marge, being unsuccessfully courted by the wealthy Jerry Costello (Angus Hepburn), interrupts Henry and Betty's pre-party bounce and tickle; Ruth and Tom show up later. Tom's just had cataract surgery, and the bubbly Ruth has been told that he's expected to go suddenly senile, but it's Henry who has some kind of a seizure at the party, from which he never recovers. The rest of the play traces the characters' adjustments to the calamities that follow.
Companions has two acts made up of brief scenes separated by blackouts and dim-outs. Though the first scenes are marred by too many Irish cliches (Betty makes sure that her husband is kept well away from the bottles of quality whisky that keep making their way into their house, for instance), and one otherwise healthy character dies suddenly and a bit arbitrarily, the play is infused with warmth, love, and an interesting subtheme of the rise of the post-Kennedy Irish in America. The timelines may be a bit problematic; the audience is told that Betty immigrated from Ireland to the States when she was fifteen, but earlier it's stated that she and Henry were spies against the Brits while they were in the auld sod. She used to tease the soldiers to get information out of them, and the idea of a bunch of guys messing about with a barely pubescent girl is disturbing. But these problems can be worked out.
The acting was very solid and earnest. Mooney's John, a man with a rakish, George Clooneyish charm, seemed to be a commentary on what happens when one pulls away from one's roots. When Hank is taken ill, John's preoccupied with his folks' drawing up a will, and later connives with the clergyman son of the widowed Betty's boyfriend like the owner of a prize mare negotiating a stud fee. "It's a military maneuver plotted by generals," says Betty in her sturdy brogue. "Not cruel, just deadly efficient, no red tape." The monsignor, by the way, was played with a herpetic languor by Gregg Brown; he should be a villain but he's not, as no one's a villain in this play, but the way he put up his left eyebrow made the audience wary of him. Angus Hepburn was all Celtic charm and heartiness as Jerry, who woos first Marge, then Betty, and the rest of the cast performed skillfully. Jason Grant's direction was competent, given the tiny stage of the Abingdon's Stage II auditorium and the fact that the cast hadn't that much time to rehearse. The lighting design was simple, dominated mainly by one steady spotlight between the blackouts. Companions is a pleasant but bittersweet time at the theater.
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Copyright 2003 Arlene McKanic