People Who Love

Three enjoyable plays await Tucson theater-goers before the summer drought hits

Four different theatrical productions flooded Tucson all at once last week, after which we'll have a near drought through the summer. Why don't these people share their calendars?

I couldn't review everything, so Shakespeare in the Park fell by the wayside, but the three I did catch are all worth your attention. Here's my evaluation, from the most serious to the least serious.

A poor production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof subjects us to three hours with a disagreeable Southern family in countless forms of denial. A good production cracks through those hard, nasty exteriors and squeezes out the complex pathos of each family member. In that and all other respects, Arizona Repertory Theatre's production is very fine, indeed.

A bowdlerized version of the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955; Williams tinkered with it, his favorite work, until he thought he got it right in 1974. That version is rarely presented, but it's the one that director Brent Gibbs has chosen for his UA town-and-gown cast. The differences between it and what we usually see aren't enormous; it's mainly a matter of more frequent and more convincing profanity, a swearing that's economical enough to heighten expression rather than dull it through superabundance.

Everything else remains the same. It's the night of the 65th birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt, a fabulously wealthy Southern landowner who clawed his way up out of the dirt, and although he amassed acreage and money, he never acquired the manners that would elevate him to the status of Southern Gentleman. He doesn't give a damn; the only thing he wants to do right now is believe the lie his doctors and family are telling him: All he's suffering from is a spastic colon, not the terminal cancer that would rob him of another 20 years of life and a chance to see that his realm falls into the hands of his favorite son.

That would be Brick, a former college sports hero who is in no shape to trade his cleats for Big Daddy's shoes. Brick has become a dedicated alcoholic, working at it from early in the morning until he feels that click in his head that gives him temporary peace. He's pretty much given up on everything since his best friend, Skipper, committed suicide. Seems that Brick had an unusually close relationship with Skipper--"one great good thing which is true," he calls it, something unsullied by sexual shenanigans, but the clear homoerotic undercurrent of their friendship is something he works hard to deny. Brick's wife, Maggie, may have had an indirect role in Skipper's death, and between that and Brick's sexual identity crisis (and his chronic inebriation), sex in this marriage is, in the words of Leonard Cohen, "just a shining artifact of the past."

Maggie is the title character, the cat trying her best to stay on that hot tin roof. She does love Brick, and she needs him to love her back; she's sure as hell not about to slide back into the poverty of her childhood. Maggie is a tour de force role, the play's first act being a rarely interrupted 45-minute monolog for her, and UA senior Charlotte Bernhardt delivers it like a virtuoso cadenza before she melds into the rest of the ensemble for the remainder of the play. She is, as Maggie describes herself, hard, frantic and cruel, but Bernhardt brings a great deal of nuance to all that. This cat would prefer to cuddle and purr, but she will do whatever it takes to land on her feet.

The second act is similarly dominated by Big Daddy, in a sideways confrontation with Brick over his alcoholism and underlying problems. It would be easy to make Big Daddy seem like nothing but a domineering old man, but Roberto Guajardo brings more than just bluster and meanness to the character, drawing out Big Daddy's sadness and disillusion. Under the sensitive direction of Brent Gibbs, Guajardo and Bernhardt offer memorable portrayals of characters who are equally strong, and equally stricken, and they do it with tremendous sincerity.

As Brick, Scott Reynolds initially seems even more passive and even amiable than necessary, although he does muster the requisite emotion for his confrontation with Big Daddy. Cynthia Meier gets Big Mama just right, starting out with the air of a woman who enjoys unquestioned authority, and ending up a quivering heap of denial. The rest of the cast, particularly Jeremy Selim and Julie Garrison as Brick's grasping brother and sister-in-law, is faultless, and has the privilege of working on Sally Day's set, full of Southern elegance via clean Japanese lines with an almost Gothic vertical thrust.

What Arizona Repertory Theatre presents is a play that's not at all about hard, hateful people, but about people who love too much.

Arizona Onstage Productions' mounting of Sunday in the Park With George is critic-proof, insofar as the whole run, including some added performances, is sold out, with the possible exception of the show tonight (June 26). But, as usual, producer-director Kevin Johnson has critic-proofed his production in a more important way than putting butts into all the seats before reviews appear: He's crafted something of sufficiently high quality that it stands on its own merits and generates a buzz even without help (or hindrance) from critics.

So I'll keep this brief: The musical, with score and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, initially examines a chip from the painterly life of Georges Seurat as he was working on his masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," sketching his sometimes hostile subjects in the Parisian pleasure park and neglecting his mistress, Dot. The second act finds Seurat's imaginary descendant, also an artist named George, more linked to the people around him, but in a rather superficial way. This George slowly begins to realize the importance of personal connections within the frame of his career, 100 little multicolored dots blurring together into a warm, coherent form.

Musically, the first act in particular is tremendously difficult, and Johnson's thoroughly drilled cast achieves accuracy while establishing character with flair. Kristé Belt is particularly fine, conveying Dot's humor, perturbation and longing with wonderful finesse. Kit Runge, as Georges/George, has long been Arizona Onstage's most compelling performer; this man could bring emotional depth and integrity to the repertory of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Here, he's working with much stronger material. I initially felt he was underplaying the perpetually preoccupied Georges in the first act, but gradually I realized he was merely conserving his resources for maximum contrast with the second-act George, a more extroverted and self-aware character.

The rest of the cast does fine work, particularly Ina Shivack as Georges' mother. The small orchestra, supervised by David Craig and Tim Warren, plays quite well, if just a bit too loudly for the space. Porter McDonald's digital projection and art do a fine job of integrating Seurat's developing painting with the action, although I'm not sure that every change on screen came at just the right moment on opening night.

Sunday in the Park With George is a very expensive show to produce, and it will surely lose money unless some backer comes forward to pay off the bills. But it's rich artistically, another success for one of Tucson's most ambitious little theater companies.

The romantic comedy Prelude to a Kiss is not a particularly ambitious choice for Live Theatre Workshop, whose seasons are dominated by this sort of well-crafted entertainment. But director Terry Erbe has complicated things to good effect by introducing a live musical component to enrich the transitions between scenes. The lovely Amy Erbe, in a black evening gown and long white gloves, sings snippets of standards with piano accompaniment, the lyrics reflecting developments onstage. These are not stop-the-action musical numbers, but merely brief elements that bridge the action. She sings full-length songs only before the play and during intermission, and it's a shame that the audience chatters so much that you can't hear her very well when she and the pianist have the stage to themselves.

As for Craig Lucas' play itself, it's a witty and warm psychoanalytic fairy tale about sex and death. Don't forget that "witty and warm" part, which is most important. But the business about transference and fear and desire is what gives the play a bit more intellectual heft than most works of its ilk.

Peter and Rita are two young people in love. They're made for each other, perfectly compatible, and marry as soon as possible. But on their honeymoon, Peter begins to feel that Rita is no longer the woman with whom he fell in love. In fact, she's not; at the wedding reception, an old man taking advantage of the tradition of kissing the bride switched souls with her. The old man's soul is now in Rita's young body, and Peter sets out to find his "real" Rita.

Well, she's now trapped in the body of a decrepit old man who will be dead within months thanks to cancer. This isn't what Peter anticipated when he vowed to love Rita in sickness and in health, until death do them part. Can Rita and the old man be properly re-ensouled? And if not, which pairing now constitutes the romantic couple?

Lucas wrote this in the late '80s as a subtle AIDS metaphor, but that's barely evident in Live Theatre Workshop's mainstream approach. It's about love and devotion, period, and if you want to read more into it, that's your business. As Peter and Rita, Nate Weisband and Dallas Thomas are an irresistible couple; they have tremendous chemistry together, the sort that makes you really care about their relationship from the beginning and root for them to be reunited, one way or another, by the end. David Johnston is sympathetic as the old man's body inhabited by a young woman's soul, and even if we're not fully convinced that Johnston and Thomas are playing each other's characters, overall, it's an endearing presentation of a funny and touching story.

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