The Eureka! Theatre Company has shown itself to be a bastion of controlled-risk theatre. Founder and artistic director Evann Wilcosky has consistently produced top-quality productions of plays most theatres in the Valley won't touch. Last season's roster included Christopher Durang's Baby With the Bathwater and one of the year's best undertakings, John PielMeier's Impassioned Embraces.
Wilcosky, whose goal, she says, "is to provide the maximum opportunity for women to develop as actors, directors, producers and writers," surrounds herself with some of the most talented artists in the Valley.
But the greater the risk, the greater the reward--and the greater the likelihood of missing the mark, as does Eureka!'s current production of William Mastrosimone's TheWoolgatherer.
Mastrosimone is best known for Extremities, which deals with a woman's rape. TheWoolgatherer, winner of the L.A. Drama Critics Award for Best Play of 1982, is rarely seen onstage, and for good reason. It's a plotless compilation of self-disclosure and quirky observation by the play's two odd, lonely characters, Rose and Cliff. The themes--fear of intimacy and the anticipation of loss--disappear under the weight of Mastrosimone's convoluted dialogue. The subject bounces from dinosaurs to beer to suicide with little or no transition, and the mood careens from farce to tragedy in seconds.
Cliff, a transcontinental truckdriver whose rig has broken down in Philadelphia, visits the local five-and-dime while waiting for his semi to be fixed. There he meets Rose, an apparent innocent, who gives Cliff hope of an easy conquest by inviting him up to her apartment.
The place is furnished with a bed, a table and a refrigerator. Rose has only one chair, one stool and one glass. There is no television, radio or telephone, and the only window is boarded up. Cliff, as down-to-earth as his truck's 18 wheels, observes wryly, "You don't entertain much, do you?"
Rose describes in detail how the woman who last rented her apartment hanged herself. We learn that she has never been farther from Philadelphia than Newark, New Jersey, and seems to have no social life.
While Rose is fascinated by the freedom Cliff appears to have as a truckdriver, Cliff sees only the restrictions of his way of life. At the mercy of dispatchers, traffic laws, bribes and the clock, he bemoans the time spent away from home and from a former lover who became unfaithful. Cliff invites Rose to come along with him and see America, but Rose has been hurt in the past, and sees this as an empty promise.
When it becomes clear to both Cliff and Rose that neither can fulfill the desires of the other, Cliff agrees to leave. Before he does, Rose asks if she could have his wool sweater as a memento. Cliff responds, "You don't want me to stay, but you want to remember me?" Rose would prefer to deal in memories and not with the people themselves, hence the title of the play. "To Woolgather," says the program, "is to indulge in vagrant fancies."
The play's best moments are when Cliff exploits Rose's gullible side, describing how a crowbar protects people from killer crows, and how a roach clip kills cockroaches. Rose responds like a young child, open and believing.
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Mary McGary's performance as Rose shines like a beacon through this murky script. McGary gives the best performance I've seen this year, with a sweet, natural delivery, perfect for this contemplative character. McGary's performances in the past have shown her to be one of the top actresses in the Valley and a valuable resource to Eureka!.
Kevin Cleere, as Cliff, while charming enough, tends to let the emotion carry him away. He plays the character much too big for the intimate space of 7th Street Theater's Edge Stage.
The pair is directed competently by Deborah Lawrence, who keeps the two performers moving to add visual variety. Lawrence chooses to underscore the most emotional monologues with an ethereal score composed by Jody Gates. Instead of adding atmosphere, the music tends to obscure the focus that properly belongs on the performers.
Mastrosimone has said, "All theatre, in my opinion, should be wish fulfillment tempered in reality." Well, the reality is that TheWoolgatherer goes nowhere, and my wish is that, in the future, Eureka! Theatre Company would return to more cohesive plays worthy of its well-deserved reputation as one of the most progressive theatres in the Valley.