Short and Sweet

Invisible Theatre's heartwarming 'Mesa' is a road trip worth taking

To call a show a "feel good" play seems like a backhanded compliment. "Feel good" can imply the saccharine, simplistic or silly.

Yet Invisible Theatre's Mesa is a feel-good show, in the best sense of the term: It's funny and sweet, and its tinge of melancholy gives its comedy depth.

Doug Curtis' two-man play has the structure of a road trip. Paul (Kevin Black) is driving Bud (Jay Hornbacher), his wife's grandfather, all the way from Alberta, Canada, to Citrus Gardens, a mobile-home park for retirees in Mesa, Ariz.

Playwright Curtis is a Canadian, and his play premiered at Calgary's Ghost River Theatre in 2000; it's had numerous Canadian productions since. Now, IT is giving Mesa its U.S. premiere. Yes, the characters' Arizona destination makes it an appropriate choice for the company. But, more importantly, this is an amusing and relatable play for almost anyone.

There's more than just a difference in age between the two protagonists, though the age gap is substantial: Paul is in his 30s; Bud is in his 90s. Paul is an aspiring writer, still reluctant to commit to work and family. He's eager to see the "real" American West—from iconic landmarks like the Grand Canyon to quirky restaurants off the beaten path. By contrast, his grandfather-in-law is a practical man, a retired banker who worked hard all his life. He has a firm itinerary that involves sleeping at Motel 6 and eating at Denny's. No unexpected detours are allowed.

Bud's annual voyage to Mesa—where he plays saxophone at the Saturday-night dances—is important, and nearly sacred, to him. He's been going there since the 1960s. (The play is set in 1998—Paul and Bud listen to the radio as John Glenn becomes the oldest man to fly into space.) Bud used to share the experience with his wife, Molly, but she has died. There's Bud's new girlfriend, Jean, but a hip operation might stop her from coming down.

Throughout the play, Bud keeps repeating that this might be the last year he'll be able to travel.

"Health insurance is getting too expensive," he says over and over, but it becomes clear that it's health, not insurance, that will truly put an end to his pilgrimages to Mesa.

As the play progresses, Bud finds blood in his urine and then struggles with incontinence. Paul's perspective on Bud deepens, and he becomes more sympathetic as he realizes how close Bud is to having to give up many of his greatest pleasures. Bud's stubborn insistence on sticking with the things he likes becomes more poignant when seen as the last act of a long life well-lived.

The road trip setup is simple: Actors Black and Hornbacher sit in the center of the stage. There's no set, per se—we have to imagine the highways of America and then Citrus Gardens, as Paul describes them to us. The most-striking piece of stage work is a video screen at the back of the stage. At the opening and closing of the play, we are treated to filmed footage of an actual Saturday-night dance at Citrus Gardens: It turns out the play is based on a true story. Citrus Gardens is an actual place, and the character of Bud is modeled on a real person.

The found footage gives the play an additional, poignant dimension. Especially as the play closes, it is moving to see the happy, older residents of Citrus Gardens dance—a moment of life preserved as time moves on.

Longtime IT collaborator Harold Dixon directs, while IT's artistic director, Susan Claassen, co-produced and co-designed the set. All of the technical elements run like clockwork, with IT's usual competence.

Noteworthy is the sound design by Gail Fitzhugh. Throughout the play, the action is punctuated with a mix of rock and jazz music, and it ends with a folk ballad. The music underscores the video montages, increasing their emotional impact.

Black, a UA associate professor of theater, is engaging as the kind but pretentious Paul. He's considerate of elderly Bud, but also immature—constantly trying to get at some kind of "authentic experience" without knowing exactly what that is. It's fun to see Paul develop. At first, he's condescending, but by the end, he's fallen a little bit in love with Bud's life at Citrus Gardens. We come to realize that Paul is avoiding some real problems back home, including marital troubles. By the end of the play, it is unclear which man needs the other's company more.

Hornbacher is a newcomer to the Tucson stage—appropriately, like Bud, he hails from a cold place up north: Minneapolis, where he acted with some of the Midwest's finest theaters, including the Guthrie and the Jungle. He's excellent, never overplaying either Bud's strength or his vulnerability. If you've ever cared for an elderly person in frail health, Hornbacher's performance will ring true.

Certainly, the road trip has been done to death, in both theater and film. But so what? This short and sweet play, only one act long, taps into something genuinely human. It's worth taking the trip.

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