Looking Back in Regret

"Nothing is inevitable," goes the old saying, "except death and taxes." In Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, playwright Israel Horovitz begs to differ, or at least, amend: Add "regret" to that short list. In the freezing gloom of a New England winter, an imperious old man, Jacob Brackish, shuffles around his old house in the working-class fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts, waiting out a terminal diagnosis and wrestling with his mistakes and lost opportunities. "Memories can cripple you," he says, "turn you into stone." Similarly afflicted is his new housekeeper, Kathleen Hogan, a middle-age widow with a thick Down East accent and more than a few resentments seething beneath her mousy demeanor. This is a seemingly mismatched pair: He's a Jewish bachelor with no family, a Harvard-educated Ph.D. who taught English literature and music appreciation at the local high school. She's blue-collar Irish Catholic with a passel of relatives and a sorry past of spousal abuse. But the odd-couple relationship reveals more than a few connections in this wise, rueful look at the very popular habit of second-guessing the mistakes one makes in a lifetime.

Park Your Car, now playing at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, is a play in miniature. Except for the voice of a classical-music DJ (George Merner), Dennis Creaghan as Brackish and Cary Anne Spear as Hogan fill out the entire cast. But their careful pas de deux evokes the personalities of many people from the past who still hold sway. The blurring of past and present is immediately evident in Tim Bennett's intricate, naturalistic set, the first portent of what's to follow. Jacob's house, his lifelong home, is rendered in exquisite detail, delivering a vivid portrait of its inhabitant before the play begins. The dark living room, filled with threadbare carpets and sagging furniture from the 1940s, is crammed with old books, LPs, and bric-a-brac from a long lifetime. The metal gooseneck reading lamp looks like it was new circa 1970, the dial telephone and the battered refrigerator circa 1960. On an old bookcase, a single photo perches in a tiny frame. Through a lace-curtained window, the bare branches of a spindly tree can be seen.

It's a cold, cold world out there. Inside, time has stopped, for Kathleen especially, and for this she seeks some measure of revenge. She's focused on the perceived injustices of her hard-luck life, and her arrival into Jacob's household is revealed to be more calculation than chance. Brackish also holds secrets and deceptions over the course of four seasons: The bare trees bring forth buds, then greenery, then autumn color before several truths are revealed.

Park Your Car In Harvard Yard is one of many plays by Horovitz, whose career stretches back to the 1960s; his first hit, a taut one-acter called The Indian Wants the Bronx, featured the then-unknown Al Pacino as a young tough with a sharp knife and a bad attitude stalking an immigrant in a phone booth. Since then Horovitz has produced a steady stream of well-crafted plays that tend to be strong on character but a little middling in terms of story concept. Perhaps because of this, Horovitz remains a somewhat obscure playwright, not as well-known as several of his contemporaries, many of whom he has outlasted.

He also founded a theater company in Gloucester, his hometown, helping many fledgling writers over the years.

It is perhaps this last role, as teacher and mentor, that provided the seed for Horovitz's play, which in part has to do with the impact that teachers make on students. Many novels, plays, and films have addressed this subject, but Park Your Car manages to take this issue down to a deeper question: To what extent do specific events and general circumstances affect a person's life? Jacob wonders if he had any effect at all as a teacher, while several people in Kathleen's world blame his unbending strictness for many misfortunes.

But is circumstance destiny? George Bernard Shaw thought not: "People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them." Brave words and true to an extent, but if exclusively true, this suggests that other people can or should have no impact on one another.

The world shows otherwise, however, and in this play the beaten-down Kathleen is an example of what the world can do and does. Like her literary antecedents, Rita in Educating Rita, Eliza in Pygmalion, Kathleen is subsumed by who she is and where she is from. The seemingly self-made Jacob is not immune from circumstance, as the play reveals: His life was saved by one who thought his own life ruined by Brackish's harsh grading in high school, and his career was motivated in part by a lifelong rivalry. Park Your Car plays this philosophical problem like a Slinky, gently oscillating between differing perspectives.

The minuscule cast is exceptionally fine, their characterizations memorable and completely plausible. Thankfully Creaghan steers clear of caricature in his portrait of the tottering, white-bearded Brackish, who can barely tolerate the intrusion of a housekeeper into his solitary world. Spear is a fine match as the careworn, hyperanxious Hogan, aroil with conflicting urges to please and to punish. Both have electric moments: Creaghan when Jacob tries to deal with the news of the death of his lifelong rival and friend, Spear when Kathleen comes to the horrifying conclusion that she is responsible for her own misery.

Director Bruce Lecure wisely opts for a low-key approach, articulating the story's key turning points, then letting his actors run with the show. He has also found quite a lot of warmth and humor in this play, despite its serious aspects. And he adds some nice touches of physical comedy, particularly a droll sequence wherein inept Kathleen wrestles with a recalcitrant ironing board as Brackish steams quietly in his reading chair. Thomas Salman offers effective lighting, while Steve Shapiro's evocative sound design blends distant foghorns with Bach and Vivaldi.

As is the Caldwell's style, Park Your Car In Harvard Yard is a soft, gentle play, one that's powered by character relationships rather than plot or high drama. And while this thoughtful, touching production is quiet, it is also potent, resonating well after the final scene. Some things are inevitable, to be sure, and regret may be among them, particularly if you overlook this show. Productions this carefully rendered don't come around very often.

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Ronald Mangravite

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