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03.12.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by David Allen
DATE NIGHT: Gus (Edward Sarafian) wants to take Amanda (Karen Grassle) out for an evening in 'Southern Comforts.'

Openings

An older man and woman find a twilight romance in TheatreWorks' 'Southern Comforts'

Marianne Messina


IN Kathleen Clark's play Southern Comforts, the humor comes in a relaxed and comfortable package. This two-actor TheatreWorks production about a twilight romance moved an opening-night audience to sigh and make audible remarks like "Cute!" The proverbial ground starts moving under the feet of Gus Klingman (Edward Sarafian) from the minute Amanda (Karen Grassle) walks through his front door. She's on a church errand; he's puttering around his house changing out storm windows and doors—ah, symbolism. "Openings," in spite of the light tone, are not so easy for people with great losses or rejections under their belts, especially two individuals who grew up when men really were from Mars and women from Venus.

Gus is a man of simple needs and little articulation. Amanda likes to process and relate. "It's always cut to the chase with you," Amanda complains when Gus snaps at her to get to the point. Furthermore, Gus has been living in New Jersey all his life and hates to travel; Amanda lives in her native Tennessee and enjoys driving to New Jersey to visit her daughter. But they find common ground in conversations around former marriages and World War II.

After some negotiation, Amanda moves in, and Gus is surprised to learn she comes with furniture.

Sarafian's oblivious trudge, gruff voice and air-thrumming fingers all make laconic Gus more than the sum of his one-word echoes: "Furniture?" Even in the scripted silences, Sarafian has a way of telegraphing disbelief, avoidance or selective deafness. Gus feels that the furniture is an encroachment; Amanda feels that it is making his "house look like a home."

In a no-intermission production, scene changes happen before our eyes, and director Joy Carlin turns one scene change into a clever dumb show. Stagehands dressed as movers schlep Amanda's bookcases, rugs, curtains and couches onstage while she supervises and Gus expresses panic. For the interior of Gus' home, set designer Frank Sarmiento has created a splendid arrangement of spacious living room with interesting side rooms, halls, doors and exotic windows through which we can view trees and trellises. Amanda and Gus install a storm window from the landing of a two-story, L-shaped staircase, a wonderfully precarious site for their maneuvering, teetering and bickering. In this funny sketch, Sarafian and Grassle admirably sail through the technical challenges, lifting, fitting and balancing a large window while maintaining a running argument.

Grassle does not resort to playing gabby or aggressive; she conveys Amanda's cautious attraction to Gus with charm. The combination of charming actors and creative staging yields a most humorous shtick when Amanda announces to Gus that it's about time for a birds-and-bees discussion. "I never talked like this in my life," an embarrassed Gus exclaims. In a nice detail, after he leaves to get drinks, Amanda drops in front of the TV screen to primp her hair in its reflection. No external complications darken this couple's doorstep, but they eventually direct their squabbles to gravestones and cemetery plots, Clark's gentle reminder that the real looming tension in this romance is the silent one. Without maudlin turns, the show revels in the gentle heroism of stepping from the comfort zone.


SOUTHERN COMFORT, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20–$56. (650.903.6000)


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