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Later Love

Invisible Theatre's 'Southern Comforts' is rather enjoyable fluff

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Southern Comforts is as frothy as the crown of a fine barista's cappuccino, and as wispy as the downy hair on a baby's head.

Kathleen Clark's featherweight play, about finding—and keeping—love in later life, is given a capable and sometimes charming production by the crew at Invisible Theatre. Amanda (Maedell Dixon, looking much younger than her character's intended 70-something age) appears one Sunday afternoon at the New Jersey home of Gus (Douglas Mitchell), also a youthful looking 70-year-old. He is distracted by his chores and a Yankees game, and has little interest in the contribution envelopes from church that she's come to deliver.

A storm is brewing, and as the deluge commences, he offers her refuge. She introduces herself, explaining to Gus that she is from Johnson City, Tenn., and is visiting her daughter. She offers her hand, and when they shake, a mighty thunderclap rattles the rafters. Hmmmm. Could this foreshadow things to come?

They are from different worlds. He's a stolid, retired widower, as rough-hewn as the granite and flagstone he worked with in his stone-mason days. She's an ex-librarian, a soft yet strong Southern belle who never met a conversational silence she could tolerate.

She is inquisitive, yet politely so. He is uninterested, yet politely so. But, lo and behold, within a few scenes' time, they have become a couple, although a rather odd one. Despite contrasts in how they view the world, their willingness to be intimate emotionally and their politics, they decide they are good company for each other. Their attempts to work through their differences give rise to some great one-liners and more than a few good grins. Heck, they even elicit a couple of genuine guffaws.

That seems to be playwright Clark's primary intent. She doesn't give us complex characters; there's no real probing of the nature of love in later life; there are no sharp edges and no dips into the dark side. Gus and Amanda do stumble into a conflict which might threaten their union—in this world and in the hereafter—but, generally, Clark skims the surface like a stone skipping across water. But, hey, a good stone skip takes some skill, and it's a rather pleasurable diversion.

So if we can forgive the play for what it isn't, IT's production gives us plenty of reasons to enjoy what it is.

Mitchell and Dixon, both talented and skilled pros, are firmly committed to their characters. Even though Mitchell sometimes seems to be channeling Archie Bunker, and Dixon's Southern accent would make a true Southerner grind her teeth, they make the best of what Clark has given them. Most importantly, guided by veteran director Harold Dixon, they handle the humor unselfconsciously, rarely—rarely—giving into contrivance in search of a cheap laugh.

James Blair does an exceptional job—as we have come to expect—of creating a workable set on IT's tiny stage. The action takes place in Gus' living room, which in the first act is totally his territory. Sparse and utilitarian, this is definitely Man Country. The small shelf on the wall is lined with WD-40, paint thinner, bug spray and the like—and from a brass coat rack dangles a fly swatter. Great details.

For the second act, when households have merged, Blair remodels Gus' bare-bones room into a Home Sweet Home, engineered with a woman's sensibility. Since there's no stage curtain, this transformation happens in full view of the audience during intermission, and the stagehands cast themselves as movers. Many audience members seemed quite transfixed by this bit of transparency; it was like a bonus scene on a DVD.

Gail Fitzhugh's sound design is also noteworthy. The songs she selected for scene changes not only redirect the viewer's attention from "dead time," but anchor the viewer into the story of our love-struck couple.

Although Southern Comforts is a slight piece, it is entertaining and done well. If your taste in theater leans toward the bold, dark, strong espresso kind, you might want to steer clear. If, however, you have a yen for a frothy, decaf, nonfat latte, grab your tickets before they're gone.

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