Right Turn Ahead
Wrong Turn at Lungfish provokes giggles, snorts, tears and a standing ovation.
Thursday, June 27, 2002
Photo:Bedside Manners- Dawn Flood (left in both pictures) tries to breach Rolly Dick''s nearly impenetrable emotional walls at the Magic Circle Theater.
There must have been a Shirley Temple movie that follows the same basic story arc as Wrong Turn at Lungfish: adorable waif meets dying curmudgeon and they form an unlikely friendship that enriches both of their lives. It''s a story line with stock characters that offers even a moderately talented writer-and modestly gifted actors-plenty of opportunity to milk both laughter and tears from an audience. It could be as potent as Noël Coward''s cheap wine, leaving a viewer to hate him/herself in the morning.
In the hands of playwrights Gary Marshall and Lowell Ganz, however, Lungfish bubbles beyond such banality. Instead of a formulaic tearjerker, Marshall and Ganz crafted a champagne script of surprising depth. Not only are we filled in on the back story for both of the principal characters, the playwrights also find a way to almost poetically launch into philosophical, sometimes metaphysical, ruminations about what things are important in life. This isn''t to say the script doesn''t exploit its emotional potential. Far from it.
I snorted, snickered, giggled and laughed. And by the end of the show, it didn''t matter a damn that I knew I was being manipulated: At one point, a sob caught in my throat and I left the theater with tears still wet on my face. Judging by the sniffles around me, I wasn''t the only one.
Of course, as much credit as the playwrights deserve, a script, in itself, is a lifeless thing. Even the best script can be defiled by a bad director or actors. In this production at the Magic Circle Center, directed by Elsa Con, everyone rises to the occasion-which prompted last Friday night''s opening-night audience to rise to their feet for a standing ovation.
As the hospitalized Peter Ravenswaal, Rollie Dick turns in an exceptional performance as a former college dean who''s recently lost his sight. As the play opens, he has just learned that whatever illness has blinded him is also killing him and he doesn''t have much time to live. Enter Anita Merendino, a volunteer reader played all ringlets and cherubic smiles, by Dawn Flood, and the battle between Ravenswaal''s cranky depression and Merendino''s effervescent optimism is joined.
But the conflict between the two characters is deeper than simply opposing attitudes toward life. For Merendino, humankind''s place in the evolutionary continuum is somewhere between bugs and angels. She tells of once attending a football game in which she and the rest of the crowd each held up a single card. Combined, these cards made up a huge picture. Although no one holding up a card could see the picture they made, judging by the response from the people in the opposite bleachers, it was spectacular. Life, for Merendino, is something like that: Even though we can''t see the end product of our actions we have to have faith that it counts for something.
On the other hand, as Ravenswaal faces his final days, he seeks consolation in the more complex philosophy and culture that he taught to his students. He finds so little comfort in these things that he wonders whether man might not be a mistake, an evolutionary wrong turn at lungfish resulting in an overdeveloped brain that''s overkill for basic living skills, and which is useless for attaining any state of grace.
Under Con''s sensitive direction, Flood and Dick both shine as they strip away their characters'' layers. As Flood gives her character a charming, seeming naïveté, she also lets us see the desperation with which she clings to her optimism. As he protests that he is, indeed, interested in the minutiae of Merendino''s life, Dick reveals his character''s inner longing to be connected with something-someone-whose life has red-blooded meaning.
In supporting roles, Kristi Britton plays a bitchy nurse who is tormented by Ravenswaal and Mike Newman portrays Merendino''s thuggish boyfriend, Dominic. Both-Newman in particular-do a nice job revealing multiple levels for their characters. These characters, too, have empty places in their lives that they are trying to fill, and are exaggerated examples of humankind as suggested in Ravenswaal''s and Merendino''s discussions: The nurse has become almost completely cut off from humanizing emotions, while Dominic is brutishly connected to the animal world.
Director Con doubles here as set designer and delivers a functional hospital room, where all the play''s action takes place and Julian Carson''s lighting design fulfills the script''s no-nonsense requirements.
Bottom line, this is a really good show that fulfills all the requirements for a good night of theater: It''s touching, thought-provoking and entertaining. Don''t miss it.
Wrong Turn at Lungfish continues at the Magic Circle Theater through July 22. 659-1108.