What's going on at Florida Stage? After establishing a reputation for presenting provocative, substantial new plays, the award-winning Manalapan company has recently swerved toward a series of pleasant but dramatically insipid works. The latest in this troubling trend is Hanging Fire, a low-wattage comedy whose title phrase refers to a pause while waiting for something to happen. The title is apt. Much of this regional premiere (the play had an initial production in Chicago late last year) revolves around characters waiting for Fourth of July fireworks to begin. None do.
Claudia Allen's script, set in a small town in Michigan in early July 2000, centers on the prickly relationship between two septuagenarian sisters. Lillian (Harriet Oser) is prim and proper, forever concerned about what other people think. Iconoclastic Ruth (Patricia Conolly), a retired school teacher, could care less about her reputation. Unmarried and childless, Ruth has recently suffered a stroke that has left her with a speech disability, and she is living in the old family home.
The brusque Lillian, who has come back for the town's Fourth of July holiday with her bachelor son Calvin (Colin McPhillamy) in tow, is of the opinion that Ruth can't continue her independent life and should move into a retirement home -- to Ruth's apparent dismay. Ruth is defended by her friend, Deb (Blair Sams), a younger school teacher who admires Ruth's free spirit. The standoff is interrupted by the arrival of Donny Fletcher (Richard Henzel), a peppy, upbeat, twice-widowed senior who at one time dated Lillian and then Ruth. In fact, Donny eventually reveals, it was Ruth who was the real love of his life. Donny's arrival brings back many memories, as well as a potential romantic revival between Donny and Ruth.
262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan
Written by Claudia Allen. Directed by Louis Tyrrell. With Patricia Conolly, Richard Henzel, Leanna Hieber, Autumn Horne, Colin McPhillamy, Harriet Oser, and Blair Sams. Presented through March 6 by Florida Stage. 561-585-3433, 1-800-514-3837, www.floridastage.org.
There are some interesting philosophical issues set up here, at least potentially (the milquetoast Calvin is continually troubled by a speck in his eye, which he calls a "mote," a reference to the judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged section of Christ's Sermon on the Mount). But none of this comes to much, and the oil-and-vinegar standoff between the sisters is neither active nor emotionally compelling. The play generates some energy by alternating these scenes with a series of flashbacks of Lillian and Ruth as youngsters growing up together. Young Lillian (Autumn Horne) is a pooh-poohing naysayer even in her teens, while young Ruth (Leanna Hieber) carries on an affair with a priest and takes to drinking hard liquor as a daily regimen. The sisters are tracked from one decade to the next, but their relationship doesn't develop. The only change evident is in the period-correct costumes from Douglas J. Koertge, a dramatically pointless fashion show that, after a while, begins to feel like the Carousel of Progress at Disney World.
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What does work in this show is an odd-ball, offbeat romance that crops up between Calvin and Deb, two lonely middle-agers who wrestle with fear and desire before wrestling together in a sudden tryst atop a picnic table. Had Allen put more focus on this charming, sad-sack romance, Hanging Fire might have paid off with some real fireworks. Fortunately, Allen's superior dialogue offers genial humor and flashes of wit. Director Louis Tyrrell adds some boisterous physicality, but he's not aided much by Richard Crowell's cluttered set design, which displays indoor and outdoor furniture in front of obviously phony brick and wood-paneled walls, an effect that looks like the play is being performed in the middle of a yard sale.
The production got off to a somewhat rocky start on the second night of the run, with stage technicians coming on-stage twice to remove some mistakenly placed set pieces. The cast members also had to make some adjustments of their own after some forced comedic sequences that revealed rather than disguised Tyrrell's precise staging. In more than one scene, the characters broke out into gleeful song and dance or a series of comedic takes that looked more like choreography than plausible behavior. Fortunately, all hands finally settled into the more relaxed naturalism that the script required. Sams is particularly good at tracking Deb's wildly clashing emotions -- from insecurity and doubt to uninhibited lust to mortification -- and McPhillamy's clowning as geeky, bow-tied Calvin is thoroughly engaging. As Donny, Henzel offers an infectious Midwestern optimism, and Oser manages to make Lillian a plausible soul despite the character's relentless naysaying.
Hieber and Horne do well as the sisters in flashback, but it's Conolly as Ruth who provides the most remarkable impact, a jolt of both sweet and sour. The sweetness is in her performance. Ruth can't and doesn't speak much in the play, but Conolly makes her unspoken gestures and emotions crystal clear in a gracefully underplayed performance. The sour is the inevitable comparison between Conolly's long, glorious resumé -- work with masters like Ellis Rabb and Tyrone Guthrie, on plays of substance by, among others, Molire, Racine, Shakespeare, Fugard, Chekhov, and Coward -- to her prospects as a newcomer to the South Florida theater scene. Surely this fine actress and her colleagues could be put to better use with more challenging material. As it is, Florida Stage may have to consider replacing the ancient masks of drama and comedy with those for asleep and half-awake.