BWW Review: STRING AROUND MY FINGER at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre
Life just happens. And that's not some fatalistic assertion or a means of escaping responsibility; it's a simple fact. In life, there are rarely one-note endings. We don't get perfect bows and final cadences, and even in those moments when it feels like we do, there's an orchestrating hand fiddling about somewhere. After all, we are quite a narrative species - stories mean a heck of a lot to us. Yet, now more than ever, playwrights are exploring the territory of open-ended storytelling. Character-driven stories that set the ambiguity of life before an audience and let them be the fly on the wall to other lives. This is the aim in Brenda Withers' String Around My Finger, the heartfelt season closer currently playing at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre in Summit, New Jersey. It's a show about nothing and everything - about hospital bills and Frank Sinatra and cancellation policies and unexpected pregnancy. It's a comedy borne of tragic circumstances, a tragedy tinged with humor. It is bare-bones life, a celebration of the little things and how they balloon into big things until there are events and, as Shakespeare so rightly put it, all the world becomes a stage.
In this particular slice of life, the "stage" is a small, regional hospital somewhere in the northeast and the "leads" are Kip (Dave Maulbeck) and Emma (Brianna Kalisch), young and somewhat hastily engaged. The exact nature of that engagement and it's varied impact is the focus of the night. And in the hands of Maulbeck and Kalisch, the dynamics of the relationship are clear and natural. He's a bit of a Yes-man; she's wondering if she settled for a Yes-man. Their chemistry is detailed but subtle, mining looks and stray moments for meaning between the lines. Yet, it's in the moments of grief that Kalisch really knocks it out of the park. Never indulgently sad, she infuses Emma with a calm vibrancy - like Liv Tyler but rooted in the real world rather than elfdom. Her sincerity is sharp, nudging you to dive in deeper with this young woman who has lost so much and seems on the verge of losing so much more. It's not that you root for her in the end - how do you really root for someone in a show with no one-way ending - but her eyes beg you to ask what you would do with similar scars. And, perhaps most importantly, they traverse oceans of sadness without a single tear, respecting the complexity of grief rather than seizing upon it.
And if Kalisch is the pinnacle of multi-layered sorrow, the dynamic supporting cast celebrates the oddly funny side to the world crashing down around you. As Kip's meddling older sister Lisa, Harriet Trangucci is appropriately incessant but with a twist. She has inner sorrows too, and when left alone with no one to rearrange - in a brilliantly staged moment that unfolds in the center aisle - she reminds the room just how good she can be. Scott McGowan is Dave, the dead-pan nurse who's always ready with a joke whether the moment is appropriate or not. In a role that could easily be played simply for laughs, McGowan takes his time and layers empathy and insight into each joke. Sure, he's taking the piss, but it's sass with a purpose. And Noreen Farley as the sprightly Mrs. Rizzo is, as always, impeccable in every beat.
So what is String Around My Finger? Is it a comedy, a tragedy, one of those pieces best described by a mash-up term like 'tragicomedy'? Perhaps it is best to simply leave it at this: String Around My Finger, when it frees itself from trying to say something, is a beautifully effecting slice of life. Gently guided by director and longtime Dreamcatcher ensemble member Clark Scott Carmichael, it offers no easy answers but crescendos of feeling. And you know what? Sometimes a night of theatre is better that way. Sometimes, all we need is to feel.
The final week of String Around My Finger at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre runs from Friday, May 10 through Sunday, May 12. Performances are Friday and Saturday night at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm.
Purchase tickets at www.dreamcatcherrep.org or by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006. Performances are at the Oakes Center, located at 120 Morris Ave in Summit. Parking is available in the lot behind the theatre at 20 Ashwood Ave and at the Summit Recreation Center, 100 Morris Ave. The facility is wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired and advance large-print scripts are available for free by prior arrangement.