'Center' Holds 

Invisible Theatre's latest comedy isn't just another Southern Gothic tale of hell's belles.

Despite her pride, her gentle distaste for society's lesser elements (Italians, Irish, Catholics), and her defense of her family's place in small-town society, old Vada Love Powell does not sit at the exact center of the universe. That spot is reserved for her grown-up son, the coddled but unspoiled Appleton, the apple of her eye.

But when Apple at age 35 finally runs off and marries a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, Vada's universe starts to spin faster than a visitor's head after one of her potent rum cakes.

The 10-year aftermath of Apple's elopement is the subject of Joan Vail Thorne's The Exact Center of the Universe, the comedy now playing at the Invisible Theatre. The script is not deep, but it's endearing, and the cast and director Carol Calkins finely shade the characters' relationships to create a show that is funnier and more touching than you might expect.

A comedy about elderly women in a small Southern town in the 1950s and '60s? Not another Southern Gothic tale of hell's belles! It's been done far too often. Luckily, Joan Vail Thorne populates her work with something resembling actual, complicated human beings, good people who sometimes do selfish or manipulative things for what they believe to be selfless reasons.

"I don't interfere," Vada declares. "I intervene."

But there's little Vada can do when Apple elopes, finally having realized that his mother will never approve of any woman he wants to marry because nobody could love him as much or as well as she. To make matters worse, the bride, Mary Ann, comes from a working-class Catholic Italian family.

"God forgives a lot quicker than I do," Vada warns, but, imposing as she is, Vada is no wicked stepmother. In fact, she becomes great friends with Mary Ann's twin sister, Mary Lou, who has no qualms about standing up to the older woman.

Indeed, even Vada's canasta cronies aren't fawning supplicants. Enid and Marybell and Vada gossip and bicker and keep each other in line. Vada may be the strongest personality in this little group, but she seems to appreciate her friends--and Mary Lou--largely because they set limits for one another. That seems to be one reason that Vada never fully warms up to the more timid Mary Ann.

Apple's Act 1 elopement occurs in the 1950s; the second act takes place 10 years later, and revolves around one of those much-ado-about-nothing sitcom premises: Vada "intervenes" when her grandchildren get hold of field photographs that anthropologist Mary Lou has taken of "naked savages."

What saves this from becoming TV tripe is watching Vada come to terms with her long-suppressed regrets over the decline and early end of her marriage; her loving husband succumbed as a fairly young man to protracted heart disease.

There's nothing tragic here, but there are enough bittersweet moments to enrich what otherwise might have been a shallowly amusing little play.

The production owes much of its success to the on-the-mark cast, above all Jetti Ames as Vada. She delivers her subtly boastful and indirectly cutting lines with a perfectly calculated off-handedness. Ames refuses to carry her character over the top, and makes her even more amusing and compelling because she's just like the matriarchs we've all encountered in real life. Take away the Southern accent, and she'd fit right in with my grandmother's circle of Midwestern widows who'd retired to Yuma in the 1960s.

Carol Albert's Enid and Bobby Joyce Smith's Marybell resist all temptation to twitter; there's compassion and at least a small degree of intelligence behind their silliness, and it's simultaneously amusing and heartbreaking to see their physical and mental decline in the second act.

Stephen Elton, thankfully, is never one to chew scenery, and he infuses Apple with exactly the right degree of quiet, loving exasperation. Harris Kendall nicely delineates the differences between twins Mary Ann and Mary Lou, and delivers the script's three best little speeches with understated dignity.

All of these people inhabit another fine James Blair set, a compact but detailed evocation of a specific time, place and class.

"We're your best friends," Enid and Marybell assure Vada at one point. "What we don't know won't hurt us." But how to keep what we do know from hurting us is the vital force that lies at the center of Vada's dizzying little universe.

The Exact Center of the Universe runs through March 18 at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. Tickets cost $16 to $18. Reservations are essential; call 882-9721.

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