Love’s Labour Found
Three old friends and a bench—ingredients for great theater.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Two old men share a bench on the grounds of a second-rate retirement home. Chained together by economics, circumstance and inertia, they pass the days gamely irritating the hell out of each other while they wait on death. Yet instead of the grim reaper, a one-eyed, once-famous actress invades their bench, injecting a renewed vigor for life into their dreary routine.
Mixing deathbed humor and a joie de vivre resistance to the inevitable, A Bench in the Sun, now playing at Carmel’s Carl Cherry Center, is a light-hearted meditation on life and death, faith and friendship, love and loss. In other words, the big things.
But what’s refreshing about the play is how delicately these heavy themes hang amid the engaging, well-paced story and the superb performances by local theater legends Morgan Stock, Michael Robbins and Edie Karas. The chemistry between the actors is a joy to watch. All three exhibit wickedly sharp comic timing and some admirable physical gags.
Written by Ron Clark, a reclusive American playwright whose screenwriting credits include Revenge of the Pink Panther, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie, A Bench in the Sun is paced like a movie where most of the action happens off-stage.
Relying solely on dialogue to convey all the major plot points is a tricky business, but Clark’s sharp writing and the actors’ delivery shrouds this exposition in undetectable naturalism. What makes the play so much fun, however, is the relentless stream of hilarious insults and geriatric jokes.
“I’m going to tell you my secret to falling asleep,” Burt (Michael Robbins) tells Harold (Morgan Stock). “I get in bed, close my eyes and count all my dead friends. And by the time I get to you I’ve fallen asleep.”
When the play opens, a hobbled but dapper Burt shuffles out to join his old friend Harold, who hasn’t changed out of his pajamas for years, on their bench. Immediately, the two are at each other, jabbing and parrying with a raw zest and brutal abandon.
As the details of their bland existence in the home are revealed (“They do everything to keep you alive and nothing to keep you living”), it’s clear that their relationship is the only thing with any life left in it. Burt clings to a self-described and slightly delusional bon vivant past (“I tasted life!” he proclaims unconvincingly) while the agnostic Harold hunkers down with the daily newspaper and grimly waits on “the end.”
Enter Adrienne, an aged actress in an eye patch. Burt immediately falls in love (“I’ve never made love to an actress”) while Harold stubbornly resists her influence. But before long, Adrienne’s buoyancy gets Harold back on his feet, into his clothes and even onto the dance floor.
Yet throughout this renaissance, an undercurrent of sadness runs. Harold’s wife and only son were tragically killed years before, Burt’s ex-wives and children won’t speak to him and even Adrienne is hiding something.
In the end, we discover that sadness is just another component of the well-lived life, and loss is inevitable. In the world of the retirement home, family cannot be relied on to visit or even care. Accordingly, friends are our greatest resource.
As it turns out, Adrienne is not the last great love of either man’s life. She is something much more important. She is a reminder of what is important in life, especially in its final years. Her mysterious disappearance is the catalyst that brings the two men even closer together, mending a 42-year-old wound.
Flawlessly helmed by Conrad Selvig, who had the rare pleasure of directing his mentor, Morgan Stock, who taught and directed Selvig at MPC in the late ‘60s, A Bench in the Sun is a nicely paced, sincerely funny show for all ages.
A Bench in the Sun continues at the Carl Cherry Center through June 27. 626-6796.