Like Mom's Mashed Potatoes

Southern Comforts at LTW dishes up a comedy that's fun but forgettable

Southern Comforts is a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back play that adds nothing to the age-old formula except age. The "boy" is cranky 70-year-old widower Gus Klingman and the "girl" is widowed Amanda Cross, a septuagenarian with a sunny disposition.

But there are two reasons that Kathleen Clark's thin and unsurprising comedy works so well at Live Theatre Workshop: Pat Timm and Michael F. Woodson.

They are the seasoned local actors who make the most of a script that gives them precious little. They put the comfort in this big helping of comfort food called Southern Comforts.

Like mom's mashed potatoes and gravy, you know exactly what you're getting. And you wouldn't think of pushing your plate away because it's predictable. Instead, you enjoy every bite.

Thanks to Timm and Woodson, Southern Comforts goes down easily.

First, there's undeniable chemistry between them. However mysterious and hard to define, it's the most essential quality for any boy-meets-girl tale. The opening-night audience clearly felt the sparks fly at regular intervals and cheered mightily when the inevitable happy ending arrived.

The setting is upstate New Jersey, 1996. Gus is a World War II veteran, cranky and set in his ways, and he's puttered about the house alone since his wife, Helen, died five years earlier.

"You must miss her a lot," says Amanda, a likable church lady from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee now paying him a cordial visit.

"I don't know," he replies. "Do you miss an unhappy person when they aren't around?"

Asked why Helen wasn't happy, Gus says he doesn't know and "never asked."

OK, this could get deep, you might think. But the playwright keeps it shallow. Maybe Clark thought, weirdly, that substantial talk and serious matters had no place in a comedy.

Amanda, the kind of lady often described as feisty, is immediately drawn to Gus despite most of the words coming out of his mouth. And here's where LTW nails something crucial. The cast of two makes us believe that Amanda would want Gus and vice versa. The romance feels real and so does the mundane reality that comes later.

The first act is mostly a negotiation about how they might make a marriage work in spite of all the obvious differences between them.

Gus, for example, has no desire to travel ("I never saw a place that was worth all the trouble it took to get there"). He still hasn't recovered from what he saw and what he did in Europe and North Africa in the war. Nobody called his condition PTSD back then, but one way he tries to treat it is by avoiding travel.

Amanda, who longs to travel, is also shocked when Gus describes what he wants most in life.

"I just want one person to feel sad at my funeral."

"But you've got your son, Edgar, for that," she says.

"Like I said, I just want one person to feel sad at my funeral," says Gus, looking remarkably like the 78-year-old coot in Disney-Pixar's Up, only with a more animated face.

An extended bit in the second act is expertly staged. We watch the new couple navigate for position, literally and otherwise, while they try to install a storm window. It's funny because it has the ring of truth.

A later twist in the plot, which involves a conflict over a headstone, is less convincing. A more ambitious playwright would have dwelled less on cemetery matters and more on the couple's grown children, bringing Edgar to the stage along with Amanda's daughter.

Even so, this two-hour December-December romance, directed by Sheldon Metz, holds your attention from beginning to end. Metz also designed the functional set, which cleverly depicts domestic life before and after Amanda moves in with all her furniture and books.

But it's also one of those plays that immediately recedes from memory.

If you see Southern Comforts, you'll likely enjoy it as much as I did. If you miss it, I can't honestly say that you're missing a whole lot. It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend a production that is best described as cute and frequently amusing.

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