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The Exact Center of the Universe, reviewed by Elyse Sommer

I never interfere! I intervene!---
Vada Love Powell, doyenne of genteel propriety.

If you've been looking for an old-fashioned bittersweet comedy with terrific performances to invest the familiar with bite and freshness, look no further than The Exact Center of the Universe. It's a well-structured beautifully staged captivating tale of a small town Southern woman's voyage through the sea changes of two decades -- the 50s and 60s.

The production has an arsenal of assets. Right at the top is Frances Sternhagen in a role that seems written to order for her -- Vada Love Powell, an indomitably opinionated bossy Southern lady and passionately possessive mother. She has found just the right balance between maternal love and tyranny, disarming charm and provincial prejudice. Appleton (Reed Birney) is in his own words "the center of Vada's universe." So far she has scared off every girl laying claim to Apple's affectionate (a nickname that nicely summarizes his status as the apple of her eye). It's obvious that his marriage to Mary Ann who's Italian and from a working class family is akin to an earthquake rocking her tight little world.

The character of Vada Love Powell may seem a bit transparent but as elegantly and exquisitely portrayed by Ms. Sternhagen she is a true original and, for all her manipulative bossiness, she is heartwarmingly real and lovable. She and another crusty Southern widow, Alfred Uhry's famousDaisy Wertham (a role Sternhagen has also played), may not tithe in the same church but they are seen through the same affectionate lens. (Daisy's Jewishness is there but in the background whereas Vada's Episcopalianism is very much front and center).

Sternhagen's opening scene in the parlor "in which much tea has been poured and always for a purpose" is a masterful display of iron-fisted charm. Playwright Joan Vail Thorne mines Vada's snobbism with genuine wit and calibrates her growth and change in small increments. The most evident and telling shift is in the "thick-as-thieves" relationship she develops with her daughter-in-law's twin sister Mary Lou (Tracy Thorne is both twins). This friendship evolving from a less than promising first encounter is in some ways a variant of Miss Daisy's friendship with her driver yet there's nothing derivative about it.

The entire cast contributes towards filling the stage with characters who burst with humorous and poignant insight into the development of personality and its subjection to change. Reed Birney moves gracefully from narrator to participant. In an understated but powerfully comic performance he shows us a man who's savvy about the "empress dowager-marine drill seargent" whose apron strings have kept him matrimonially unhitched until age 35. He has none of the usual mama's boy jellyfish spinelessness. In the shadow's created by Philip Widmer's splendid lighting he is also occasionally summoned up in his mother's imagination as his dead father.

Tracy Thorne, like Reed Birney adeptly alternates between Mary Ann, who moves more gradually into the 60s independence of spirit, and Mary Lou, the anthropologist-world traveler. Funny and poignant too are Veda's friends, Enid (Bethel Leslie) and Marybell (Madge Redmond). Apple refers to them as the tree house gang because of the real treehouse in which they meet weekly, ostensibly to play canasta, but in reality to gossip. But there's more than gossip to these friends who stand close to the center of Veda's universe. In some ways they echo the twin sisters.

Enid had a career and no children though not by choice and in a more traditional arena (teaching grade school). Like all women they have regrets that the societal changes around them bring front and center. Marybell's name is not accidentally similar to that of the twins. As wryly played by Marge Redmond she is a spiritual amalgam of both. Bethel Leslie is right on the mark as curmudgeonly, sour-faced Enid who knows how to noncholantly drop acid remarks. At a time when many bemoan the dearth of meaty parts for older women, Ms. Thorne deserves a special ribbon for writing not one but three great parts for this constituency.

The physical production, lovingly and smartly directed by John Tillinger adds to the wit and pace of the two act, two hour play. Michael Brown's realistic to the last teacup set makes Ms. Thorne's comedy even funnier. The lacy scrim wall and wisteria covered doorway are marvelously deep South. To fully appreciate the authenticity of Carrie Robbins' costumes be sure to check out the exhibit in the lobby. The tree house gang's print dresses transform them into walking flower gardens. Ms. Sternhagen's first outfit, a blue flowered, lace-collared dress with matching blue crystal jewelry, epitomize the charm of the Southern Belle. Her never changing, elegant French roll coiffure lends visual impact to Veda's resistance to change.

Toward the end the play smacks just a bit of contrived double dramatic crisis. As the familiar characters manage fresh nuances, however, so the plot contrivances somehow lead to a satisfying tearful but funny ending.

This marks the final play of the Women's Project & Productions season. The previous two:
The Knee Desires the Dirt
Chemistry of Love

By Joan Vail Thorne
Directed by John Tillinger
With: Frances Sternhagen, Reed Birney Bethel Leslie, Marge Redmond and Tracy Thorne.
Set design: Michael Brown
Costume design: Carrie Robbins
Lighting design: Philip Widmer'
Sound design: Laura Grace Brown
WPP Theatre Four, 424 W. 55th St. (Betw. 9th and 10th Aves) (212/ 239-6200)
3/30/99-4/25/99; opening 4/07/99
Reopened September 8, at Century Center, 111 E.15th St., (Park Av S./Irving Place), 239-6200 September 1999 -- and played until 1/09/2000 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/04/99 performance

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