Friday, June 12, 2009

Theater review: Days of Wine and Roses


Rover Dramawerks leads us into our summer with their offering of J.P. Miller's Days of Wine and Roses (now playing at the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano). In Days, Joe and Kirsten, both alcoholics, meet each other at a work function and fall in love. They eventually marry and the two have to reconcile themselves to either life with each other, or to drinking. Miller's original 1958 teleplay was a live broadcast, the popularity of which lead to the 1962 award-winning movie with the famous Mancini soundtrack. A nice piece of what would be considered social theater, the honest script avoids being preachy or judgmental, and allows the audience to watch the story unfold. Based on actual Alcoholics Anonymous procedures, literature, and anecdotes, the piece is framed as a flashback piece from an AA meeting.

Director Lisa Devine has done a wonderful job in prepping her talented cast for this production. It's not easy to play drunk, but to have to portray different levels of drunkenness, as well as the process of recovery is quite the challenge. Poor choices could result in an evening of slurring, staggering stereotypes. Devine has avoided all these stereotypes and has put together a realistic piece that is heartbreaking and poignant. Days moves along at a steady pace, without wearing down or overwhelming the audience with its weighty subject.

She moves folks around well, and has some nice variety for repeated locations that happen simultaneously. As a blackbox production, the cast has several exits/entrances around the audience, and the cast does a great job of being in character all the way out the door. It's a little thing, but since the production is so minimal, the more believable the characters, the more engaging the storytelling, especially for a piece like this.

Heather Hill is absolutely wonderful as Kirsten. She does quite a lot of subtle work with her physical character, and is very unselfconscious in her performance. Jim Croall is also very good as Joe Clay. As the recovering Joe, he has an optimism and honesty that is very compelling. As the alcoholic Joe, Croall does well conveying the urgency of the moment, but sometimes retains a small bit of his posterboy persona (vocally), which works contrary to his intentions and undercuts his character's sincerity.

Still the script has some very challenging transitions for the cast, from a contemporary sobriety, to a past transgression, and allows very little, if any, time for a performer to "get there." One scene in particular at the end of Act I has both characters getting drunk in a ridiculously short span of time. In contrast, the absolute best scene in the piece is just prior, in which Joe and Kirsten sell some personal possessions to get a fix from a neighbor. The two (characters) are downright pathetic and the scene is skillfully and heartbreakingly executed.

The supporting cast is very strong with performances by Erik Knapp, Daphne "Lexy" Coulonge, James Hansen Price, Robin Daffinee Coulonge, Greg Hullett, and Dana Harrison. I wish there was more for them to do in the piece. Knapp has a very nice moment as the upset father of Kristen, and has a paternal frustration that is entirely appropriate without being overdone. Price has the challenge of delivering the AA rhetoric without going into infomercial mode, and succeeds as the protective and patient Jim Hungerford. Dana Harrison excels in her role as Mrs. Nolan. She does quite a lot with very few lines and fills out other groups scenes with grounded credibility. Hullett has the challenge of creating the most ensemble characters and pulls it off with ease. It's hard to change shirts and create a whole new persona in three sentences. Robin Coulonge shines in her secretarial moment, and (presumably) daughter Lexy appears as Debby Clay, the unfortunate child of Joe and Kirsten.

This show is a great choice for a blackbox presentation, and several design elements help this solid production. John Pszyk's set consists of a simple platform painted a neutral tone, though I'm not sure why a few chairs were painted to match, and others were not. Joslyn Justus has kept her costumes simple and contemporary with nice results. Bill McGonnell's sound design is impressive, with directional effects and good balances. There is quite a bit of music in the production between scenes, which is used with inconsistent success. The choices of song are fine, but at times, it works as overkill, when the actors have already set the tone, or the music is miscued. Actors are either waiting for it to end or start. The same is true of the lights, which are designed by Dawn M. Wittke. Way too often did actors get plunged into darkness or have several lines delivered in darkness before being lit. Many times they stand just outside or on the lightline, causing lots of shadows. Fortunately, these are all things that will get cleaned up during the run.

Days of Wine and Roses is a compelling script that has been well done by Rover Dramawerks. If you are looking for something dramatic with solid performances, consider giving them a visit.

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