When we take our seats in the theater, and the house lights dim, we want it all: connection, thought, laughter, disquiet, disturbance and a sense of having been moved.
It's a tall order, and we don't always get everything we hope for. But if you have faith in the possibilities that are promised by a darkened theater, you return, again and again.
Tucson's theater scene has many faithful devotees with plenty of opportunities to open themselves to such possibilities. Last weekend, Etcetera, Live Theatre Workshop's not-so-mainstream late-night group, revealed Dying City, a 2007 play by Christopher Shinn, while the relatively new Winding Road Theater Ensemble opened Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly. The two shows differ in numerous ways, but they both attempt to explore how we can be battered, scarred and, sometimes, even redeemed in the presence and absence of love.
Etcetera's Dying City is a short but intense look at the costs of violence, in both its physical and emotional forms. Shinn places his characters in the extended landscape of the Iraq war, where they must deal with the reverberations of its brutality, even as they attempt to traverse their own tormented territory at home.
Shinn's intriguing story moves back and forth in time, blending troubling memories with an uncomfortable present. It is through the resulting disorientation that the characters' truths manifest.
As the story begins, 20-something Kelly (Danielle Dryer) is boxing up some books in her sparsely furnished New York City apartment. A visitor rings, and Kelly seems quite off-guard when she learns who the visitor is. She suffers an extended moment of agony, not really wanting to let him in, but she is unable to turn him away, since he knows she's there. She buzzes him in.
Kelly tries to offer a hospitable welcome to Peter (Christopher Johnson), the identical twin of her husband who, we learn, died in Iraq a year earlier. Peter and Kelly have not seen or spoken to each other in that time, the reasons for which they awkwardly try to explain. We learn that late-husband Craig was a doctoral student in literature when he decided to enlist; Peter is an actor, currently appearing in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. It doesn't take long to see why Kelly would be hesitant to welcome Peter: His manipulative narcissism is hard to witness. Kelly's discomfort is palpable.
Shinn begins to distort the timeline. We see Craig (also played by Johnson) and Kelly on the eve of his deployment, and we start to understand that physical death is only one kind of devastation. As time shifts back and forth, we witness the effects of not only how we absorb our wounds, but how we perpetuate our pain in thinly veiled violence toward others.
Johnson and Dryer work very well together, and both give credible performances. Director Laura Lippman provided context, and then let her actors find their way.
Shinn's piece is capable of delivering a kick in the pants—or a punch to the midsection. On opening night, it delivered more of a slap to the face. But the wrenching elements of Shinn's piece are evident and will surely manifest their power as the actors get a better feel for how this show plays out with an audience.
Winding Road's Talley's Folly is offered as a companion piece to his Fifth of July, which the group opened a couple of weeks ago, and the two will run in repertory through April 17. Fifth of July was a disappointment; it was difficult to watch usually dependable actors adrift, unable to coalesce within a unified vision.
Talley's Folly has no such problem. Director Terry Erbe has allowed Wilson's delightful piece to unfold in the capable hands of his two-person cast, and the odd courtship of Matt Friedman and Sally Talley comes to life with humor and sweetness.
It's 1944, and Matt (Cliff Madison), a Jewish accountant from St. Louis, is smitten with Sally Talley (Amy Erbe), a 31-year-old spinster from a prominent family in Lebanon, Mo. Matt and Sally met a year earlier, and Matt has written every day. Even though Sally has never responded, Matt has persisted in a one-sided courtship.
Sally is sure her family disapproves of what they see as Matt's exotic differences, which, they assume, includes socialist leanings. But even more relevant is the fact that Sally is convinced that if Matt learned of her personal history and its painful scars, he would find her unacceptable. Matt is now back, plotting his moves in her grandfather's dilapidated boathouse, and here is Sally to protest—decked out in a pretty dress she donned when she discovered that Matt had returned.
Matt is arguably one the best roles for actors created in the last 50 years. Smart, funny and determined, he is a true romantic, although he is far from the stereotypical leading man. This only makes him more endearing, and he woos the audience with the same sweet energy he directs toward Sally.
Madison does this role proud. He embodies Matt's single-mindedness with well-executed wit and a determined yet humble authority. He is irresistible.
Amy Erbe also excels. Although Wilson has not created Sally with the big personality and irrepressible charm of Matt, Erbe capably shows us both Sally's strength and her vulnerability.
Wilson's work has been admired for its lyricism, and Winding Road's Talley's Folly delivers a captivating dance between these two outsiders who yearn, resist and struggle to open their fragile, yet sturdy, selves to each other.
The production creates an alluring atmosphere, and we more than willingly yield ourselves. We are rewarded with the warm embrace of a story well-told.