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Love stories
Six takes on age and amour

Anyone who has visited a parent or grandparent in a retirement home, or whatever euphemism, has nodded in understanding over the issues raised and chuckled at in Love at Willow Manor. Written and directed by Linda Thomas, the six short plays are being staged by Playwrights Place at Tiverton Four Corners Arts Center (through November 20).

The last two have the most going for them, structurally and comically, especially The Cat, which was on a bill of short plays at NewGate Theatre last year. The story is familiar and simple: crusty old codger meets kindly, considerate woman and is tamed by her. Ralph Wood (Tom Oakes) is as obdurate as his surname, wheelchair-bound from war wounds, Old Glory dangling inertly behind him but more like a permanently waving distress flag. Into the open door of his room steps Rose Nichols (Katherine Sheridan), ostensibly to befriend his cat, who is prone to hiss and scratch rather than purr. The parallel is transparent to the couple, and they get as curious as we do about whether she can tame either or both of the creatures with kindness. She has been cooing a few pleasant words to the cat, Trixie, each day. But Ralph is adamant that this do-gooder wonít soften him up with tricks like offering to do his cat food shopping for him. I wonít give away how Rose finally gets through to him, but what makes the climax work is that itís true to life and as spontaneous as snapping back a hand that gets clawed. Ralph changes in a heartbeat, and you believe it like you believe in gravity.

The funniest exercise here is the concluding little play, The Will. Itís also the most suitable to audiences of all ages, since it deals with relationship issues that even twentysomethings can relate to from head-shaking experience. A couple (Linda Thomas, Dave Christner), comfortable in robes and slippers, are sitting next to each other, reading. She has just come across something called an "emotional will" that she wants them to make out. The idea is to put into writing oneís feelings about oneís spouse marrying again after oneís death. She thinks itís a sensible idea, and when he starts thinking about the attractive women that might then be available, smiles and agrees, she barks: "Over my dead body!" Baffled, he says, "I thought that was the whole point." The discussion captures some entertaining true-to-life exchanges, and the actors ó who actually are married to each other ó convey this all with appropriate whimsical realism.

Straining for effect is a problem here and there in most of the other pieces. The simplest of them is done straightforwardly by Jim Brown as The Widower, in which an old insomniac is losing his memory but struggles to hold onto his past by addressing his dead wife as though she is still there. In The Mother, the 75-year-old title character (Pam Faulkner) is chatting and kvetching over ice cream with a daughter who is trying to get through to her that she admires her. Needless to say, the daughterís observation that "sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has going for her" is not quickly understood or appreciated.

In The Girls we are set out to be charmed by two women, one who is hard of hearing when it suits her (Clare Blackmer) and another (Sheridan) who misses her furniture and French linens after moving. A convenient target of resentment arrives, the son (Brown) of the first woman, an accountant to whom his motherís complaints of neglect just donít add up.

The opening play, The Gentlemen Callers, tries to be cute and risqué but had me rolling my eyes like a teenager. Sassy Morton (Jane Fierstein) suddenly finds herself courted in the Willow Manner dining hall. One suitor is a lustful, bow-tied Casanova Dickensianly named Harold Crass (Paul S. Koumrian) and the other the dignified Mr. Ellion (Oakes), who comes to her rescue. The acting was well enough done, but I just didnít buy Sassy being so numb to obnoxiousness.

While the performances are usually serviceable here, some of these brief stories pivot on specific moments of change that the director rushes or an actor doesnít separate with enough emotional contrast or clarity. Thatís delicate theatrical territory and treading too heavily wouldnít work either ó audiences donít like messages telegraphed, after all, when they can be intimated. But thatís what little production companies like this are all about, learning and improving.

Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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