Call me sentimental

Wonderful Tennessee

By Brian Friel
Directed by Steven Keim
Perkasie Productions
Sanford Meisner
164 11th Ave. (964-8699)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 16)
Review by John Chatterton

One person young at the time characterized this piece, which closed on Broadway several years ago after nine performances, as "a bunch of old people sitting around talking." Ah, Youth!

In fact, the "old people" (in Perkasie's production, 30s-to-50s) have much to say, if indirectly, about life and death and the whole damn thing; in short, audiences could do far worse than take a walk on the wild West Side and see this wonderful show.

Three couples of long acquaintance (two of the wives are sisters; one of the women and one of the men are siblings) celebrate Terry (Kurt Elftmann)'s birthday by acceding to his strange wish to visit a deserted island for an all-night party. Terry, the only successful one in the bunch, is a bookmaker and concert promoter; it appears he now owns the island.

The island of mystery and their mysterious boatman (Charon?), who fortunately doesn't show up, take on all sorts of symbolic meanings, which anyone with a classical education will enjoy ticking off as the evening progresses. Skirting the rocks of infidelity, recrimination - even suicide, the long night's journey into day ends with a sense that they have somehow met the unknowable, that they've bonded with a mystical force that hasn't changed since their ancient forebears. And that's it, sort of. (Maybe such a lame synopsis explains why Broadway audiences didn't go for it.)

But Off-Off-Broadway audiences who don't go for it -- that is, go to the Sanford Meisner -- will miss out on an evening that touches the heart and soul without hitting a body over the head. Perhaps the most interesting performance is that of Ray Rue as George, who plays a former concert pianist who has given up and carries an accordian around wherever he goes, which he uses, Harpo-like, to express his feelings, since his voice-box seems to be riddled with cancer. But the sextet's chemistry as a whole bespoke ensemble acting and sensitive direction. Terry is proud of his success but helps his relatives out of financial jams without fanfare; Berna (Janice Hoffman), Terry's wife, has an unspoken mental-health problem that has everyone on edge; Frank (David Fraioli), Berna's brother-in-law, is a failed writer; Angela (Lesleh Donaldson), Frank's wife, is a lecturer and hates it (there is a not-so-secret sexual undercurrent between Terry and Angela); Trish (Mary Aufman), Terry's sister, maternally looks after husband George.

None of this chemistry does anything, in the sense of creating bangs or unpleasant smells, except that Terry admits his true financial state, George admits that he is dying, Frank realizes he is a failure, and so on. (Music is an understated but powerful source of bonding energy here.) All are redeemed by their encounter with the unknown and by their recognition of their own limitations, which is about as redemptive as drama can get these days before it turns into Godspell.

The set, by Telford Scenic, was a knockout by Off-Off-Broadway standards. Lighting (uncredited), while generally fine, showed that the Irish weather is no more even than the English (in Perkasie's production of Absent Friends, with which fine play this production can be justly compared). Costumes subtly explained how each character felt while dressing on the morning before.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 1
Lighting/sound 2
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Copyright 1997 John Chatterton