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A CurtainUp Review
Southern Comfort

I can't get away with too much around you—I like that. Sort of like a good cup of coffee. You keep me awake — Gus, explaining why Amanda hasn't turned him off as did the church ladies who pursued him after his wife died.

Penny Fuller and  Larry Keith in <em>Southern Comforts</em>
Penny Fuller and Larry Keith in Southern Comforts
(Photo: James Leynse)
It's a love story all right. Not the our eyes locked and held love at first sight kind. Not the fiery sort of passion that has two people grabbing at each other and consummating that passion with wild abandon. Instead, this is a sweet yet darkly comic Indian Summer affair, made to order for two older thespians to dig their teeth into —as Penny Fuller and Larry Keith do.

What we have are two lonely senior citizens, both church goers. Their biggest passion, at least when we first meet them, seems to be baseball.

Gus, a retired stone mason, is something of a curmugeon and compulsive neatnick. Amanda is a still adorable Southerner, but with a vein of iron determination running through her trim body. World War II gave him his fill of excitement and seeing the world, and left him permanently disinclined to leave the Northern New Jersey home where he was born, wary of change and risk. Amanda's husband, also a war veteran, returned to Johnson City, Tennessee apparently severely depressed. His death in a car crash, possibly a suicide, left her a widow with a young child at an early age.

While the church widows beat a path to Gus's door after his wife's death five years ago, none succeeded in touching his heart. Amanda was too tied to her husband's memory to remarry any time soon after his death and was also too busy working and raising her daughter to " give it much thought "— by the time she did, she was too used to having her own way to do the necessary compromising. (As she puts it at one point "Like you and travelin', I guess, never found anyone worth all the trouble it took to get there.").

Since he never leaves New Jersey, it's her traveling North to visit her married daughter that brings them together. And it's on behalf of her daughter, who belongs to the same church as Gus, that we find her knocking on his door to collect a contribution for the church and remind him to attend services. Love may not strike like a bolt of lightning but a severe thunderstorm and a ball game on Gus's TV that has several tense innings to go, keep her there long enough for something to flicker between these two lonely people.

Judith Ivey directs this two-hander's economically written script by Kathleen Clark so that Amanda and Gus's relationship moves through its ups and downs predictably but believably. Ivey's fine eye for detail is evident throughout; for example, in the first scene Amanda picks up a paper while Gus is in the kitchen to get her a glass of water, when he returns and sees it in a different spot, he puts it back exactly where it was and with the pages meticulously re-folded.

Scene by scene (there are six in all) Amanda and Gus, though remaining true to the initially stereotypical impressions they make — chirpy Southern widow/grumpy and self-contained macho man— add nuance to their characters to become real and endearing human beings. There's little that's new about their story but Kathleen Clark has written them a script filled with warmth and humor to which older theater goers especially are sure to respond.

While I'm sure Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter (a real life husband and wife team), were an appealing Gus and Amanda during the play's premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Penny Fuller and Larry Keith are a match made in theatrical heaven. Keith deserves special plaudits for taking over for Biff McGuire who had to bow out during rehearsals due to an injury. Keith has not only memorized his lines perfectly and on very short notice, but pro that he is, has created a character rich in facial expression and body language.

When the couple's geographical differences are bridged, Ivey cleverly uses prop movers to act as moving men to refurnish Thoma Lynch's handsome set. All the between scenes pauses are enriched by Paul Schwartz's lovely incidental music. Contributing to the pleasures of the production are sound and lighting designers T. Richard Fitzgerald and Brian Nason who create a dilly of a thunder storm and Joseph G. Aulisi who contributes to Keith's neat working man's appearance and Fuller's ultra feminine chic. The program credit for a fight director is something of a head scratcher.

While Ivey in a publicity interview talks about Amanda and Gus as being in their seventies this doesn't quite jibe with the play's timing. The program notes set the action in the present so Gus, at any rate, would have to be at least eighty-one or two to have been in World War II. And while Fuller looks much younger, the whole tenor of this couple's conversation seems to predate the age of Viagra.

I doubt that the twenty and thirty-year olds producers are so eager to lure away from Mytube and the movies and into the theater will be drawn to this better late than never romance and its issues about sex at a certain age and second marriage burial arrangements. But that shouldn't be a problem. There are plenty of cotton headed theater goers in New York to fill Primary Stages' home at the 59E59 complex for the rest of its run —and lots of able older thespians who'd love a chance to play Amanda and Gus when, as they surely will, they hit the regional theater circuit.

Next up in the Primary Stages lineup is a more all ages show, the New York premiere of the new musical Adrift in Macao with book & lyrics by Christopher Durang, music by Peter Melnick, direction by Sheryl Kaller and choreography by Christopher Gattelli (For an idea of what to expect, see our review of the show's premiere in Philadelphia). This will be followed by the world premiere of Terrence McNally's new play Deuce starring perhaps our premier actress of a certain age, the one and only Marian Seldes.

Playwright: Kathleen Clark'
Director: Judith Ivey
Cast:Penny Fuller and Larry Keith
Sets: Thomas Lynch
Costumes: Joseph G. Aulisi;
Lights: Brian Nason
Sound: T. Richard Fitzgerald;
Music: Paul Schwartz
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 212-279-4200
From 9/19/06 to 10/29/06; opening 10/04/06.
Tue at 7pm; Wed to Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 14th press performance

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