BWW Review: Crossing Paths at HOMESTEAD CROSSING
Written by William Donnelly, Directed by Kyle Fabel; Scenery Designer, Anita Stewart; Costume Designer, Lara de Bruijn; Lighting Designer, Paul Hackenmueller; Sound Designer, Shane Rettig; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen
Performances through September 30 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Liberty Hall, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.MRT.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is having a bit of a rebirth in its 34th season. The Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in Liberty Hall has been completely renovated with an emphasis on comfort and safety for the audience, achieved with the sacrifice of a small number of seats. The box office and lobby are unrecognizable (in a good way), and there's the smell of new carpeting and excitement in the air.
As handsome as the physical changes are, the choice of Massachusetts playwright William Donnelly's Homestead Crossing as the inaugural selection is greater cause for excitement. In keeping with MRT's tradition of staging contemporary and new plays, Artistic Director Charles Towers strikes both chords with this world premiere in a co-production with Berkshire Theatre Group and Portland Stage Company. Donnelly writes about life and love with insight, humor, authenticity, and a liberal dose of sarcasm tempered with tenderness.
Director Kyle Fabel and the cast of David Adkins (Noel), Corinna May (Anne), Lesley Shires (Claudia), and Ross Cowan (Tobin) hit every note with the right emphasis, playing their parts like a well-rehearsed string quartet. Noel and Anne are a long-married, childless couple, living out their antiseptic lives in suburbia feeling alternately bored, resigned, or numb. Their theme song could be "Is That All There Is?" When Claudia and Tobin quite literally drop onto their doorstep, the innocence, exuberance, and spontaneity of the younger couple throws Noel and Anne into the way back machine and you can almost see their lives passing before their eyes.
The setting is the uncluttered study of Noel and Anne's home on a cul-de-sac in Homestead Crossing, most likely an upscale, planned neighborhood populated by people of similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Anita Stewart's scenery design reflects the orderliness (tedium?) of the couple's life, with two chairs and a small occasional table on a rectangle of rug center stage, built-in shelves with books and a few vases neatly aligned, and nothing on the walls. Donnelly lets it slip that Noel is a Republican, but his politics take a back seat to his hard-wired, stereotypical world views and his clumsiness in navigating the waters of the relationship. When Noel tells Anne, "I love you very much; I have nothing to say to you right now," it encapsulates the state of their marriage and it sounds like a positive thing.
Their conversation and the action heat up when, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, a dripping wet Claudia pounds on the upstage picture window beckoning to be admitted to use their telephone. I love the dialogue between Noel and Anne in this scene as they debate whether or not it is prudent to allow a stranger into their home, conjuring up every bad decision ever made in a horror movie. It telegraphs a hint of danger to the audience and makes us wary of the young woman's intentions, despite her openness and apparent harmlessness. She bombards her hosts with nonstop chatter and a litany of personal questions that make their heads spin. When they answer Claudia's queries, they begin to examine their previously unexamined lives and uncover some surprises along the way.
Fabel gets the most out of those surprises by building in pauses and focusing attention on the nonverbal cues shared by the actors. He lulls us into concentrating on Claudia's banter along with Noel and Anne so that we are equally shocked by another unexpected arrival. There are a few incidents that are clichéd (e.g., lights going out during the storm), and a couple of Red Herrings, but they add to the character development and suspense respectively. Homestead Crossing falls primarily into the comedy genre, but there are surreal twists and turns that steer it away from predictability.
Stewart evokes the rainstorm with floor to ceiling columns of crinkly, blue fabric flanking the stage and multiple sandbags at the base of each column. Credit Lighting Designer Paul Hackenmueller and Sound Designer Shane Rettig with keeping the ongoing deluge in our consciousness. Lara de Bruijn achieves a wet, bedraggled appearance for Claudia and Tobin, and her costume designs for Noel and Anne are sufficiently nondescript to serve as a metaphor for their dull existence.
Donnelly finds interesting and unexpected ways to create alliances and disputes between his characters, and the four actors connect in every imaginable configuration. Noel undergoes the greatest change over the course of the play and Adkins seamlessly traverses his ups and downs. Anne knows herself at this stage of life and May plays her with easygoing self-assurance. The younger couple is more kinetic and both Shires and Cowan utilize larger swaths of space on the stage. He projects dim innocence and good-heartedness, an apt stoner portrayal. Beneath her cheery demeanor, Shires conveys Claudia's underlying mistrust of the world that has so often disappointed her.
Despite Claudia's disappointments, she is the personification of Donnelly's optimistic view that it's never too late to have the life and love you want. It may be challenging to figure out exactly what you want, and you may not always know how to get it, but you never know who will cross your path and provide the instruction you need.