(Long Beach, CA) March 20, 2011 – Question: Is romance truly dead? Answer: It depends on who you ask. The cynics would say that romance was obliterated the moment the 60’s came into being when self-indulgence and moral irresponsibility was disguised as “sexual and spiritual independence”. The romantics would respond that although romance had taken a serious beating the last 40 years, the incredible, passionate journey of how a man and woman can come together and be of one mind, body, and spirit will always persevere throughout the ages. And then you have the realists who would simply state that although the divorce rate in the United States is approaching 50%, you would have a better chance of a healthy, long-term marriage in the suburbs of Middle America than with the fast, career-obsessed atmosphere of the coastal, metropolitan cities; this especially applies to Los Angeles/Hollywood, which has lately been unofficially named the “Ninth Circle of Hell” when it comes to the dating life of a single man or woman who is trying to find a healthy, monogamous relationship.
As far as the arts are concerned, romance has been kept alive and fairly healthy. Although the Oscar winning The King’s Speech focused more on the evolving friendship between the King of England and his speech therapist, the love that Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) has for her “Bertie” (Academy award-winning Colin Firth) can melt the heart of the most hardened cynic. And the joy of romance is, without a doubt, beautifully created and fine-tuned at Long Beach, where the International City Theatre launches its production of Southern Comforts. With veteran actors Michael Learned and Granville Van Dusen at the helm, Kathleen Clark’s play on the budding relationship between a retired widow and widower brings a glimmer of romantic hope in a world filled with bitter cynicism.
New Jersey widower Gus Klingman (Granville Van Dusen) is a man of unshakable routine. He loves his baseball, he installs his storm windows meticulously right before winter approaches, and he is comfortable with the openness of his spacious house. He is indeed a man set in his ways until widow Amanda Cross (Michael Learned) visits him. A southern belle from Tennessee who is also set in her ways, Amanda doesn’t take any guff from Gus, but she begins to be drawn by his curmudgeon nature that hides his inner pain (stemming from an unhappy marriage from his first wife). And Gus also becomes attracted to this feisty southerner who teaches him how to become more open to new experiences, as well as opening his heart to those who truly love him unconditionally. And this relationship slowly evolves---bumps and all---to a heart-warming and poignantly funny climax.
In order for a two person play to succeed (in other words: not drag), you need a seasoned director and two actors who understand the craft of character development and pacing. And I.T.C. couldn’t do better than having director Jules Aaron expertly create and maintain the leisurely pace like a conductor directing an orchestra. He knows when to set the timing and blocking for the overall production and he knows when to leave the actors alone to conjure their own thespian magic. And the 1 hour and 45 minute play (including a 15 minute intermission) goes by fast without being rushed. The crowning achievement for Aaron occurs in the beginning of the second act as we see Gus’s house transform from a barren bachelor pad to a warm, cozy home. This musical interlude is a cute touch without it being saccharine, and it capture’s Gus’s conflict about compromising to a new life with his new wife.
As far as the play’s two stars are concerned, one is witness to true craft and artistry. Emmy award-winning Learned is a spitfire as Amanda, who is quite open regarding discussing all topics including politics, small town life, traveling, family, and sex (At her age? Shocking!). But underneath that firebrand personality is a sensitive soul whose undying love for Gus is passionate without it being histrionic or stereotypical. And she soon discovers that empathetic subtlety is more effective in helping Gus when it comes to him facing his unhappy past.
Equally powerful is Van Dusen’s Gus, whose conservative, internal demeanor possesses a sly, dry humor and Yankee charm. But as the play progresses, Van Dusen really has the harder job of the duo as he patiently reveals Gus’s pain and conflict without being morose or bitter. The more exposure he has to Amanda, the more of his soul he reveals, and Van Dusen masterfully shows Gus’s humanity in trying to adapt to a new life where change is indeed a frightening task at such a late age. But when you place these two artists together, their chemistry doesn’t spark; it ignites full blast. It is evident that they have fun together in their roles and the journey their characters go through. And that fun spreads throughout the audience, making Southern Comforts a true romantic gem to behold.
Southern Comforts opened March 18 and runs to April 10.
INTERNATIONAL CITY THEATRE
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 East Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach CA 90802
(562) 436-4610 or http://www.internationalcitytheatre.org/
Friday, Saturday, Sunday: $44
Photos by Carlos Delgado