What I did this summer is scramble to find theater productions to write about, which is how I came to break my rule about never attending any play presented in a strip mall. But a summer season almost entirely bereft of theater found me last weekend driving up and down Thomas Road in search of the converted storefront that's home to Is What It Is Theatre, a youthful company whose production of A.R. Gurney's What I Did Last Summer was the only thing playing that I hadn't already seen. With a couple of exceptions, Gurney's writing gives me a headache, but this production was briskly staged and contained enough attractive performances to keep my mind off the mawkish script.
Last Summer is a memory play set in 1945, the year that our hero, 14-year-old Charlie, meets his mentor and learns to question the status quo. Bohemian Anna Trumbull, who's known as "the pig woman" because of her rumored loose morals, takes Charlie under her wing. She's a lousy artist, but a great art teacher who inspires her protégés; he's a rich kid who's summering on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie with his mom and sister. His father is fighting in the Pacific and may be missing in action, but Charlie's more concerned with having a memorable coming-of-age experience than he is with his father's mortality.
Gurney's light comedy depicts the confusion of adolescence as a sweetly nostalgic, vaguely trying time; even a young boy whose father may be lost at war and whose mother is having an affair with one of the locals is only dimly troubled. If the author's clever situations are too sentimental to be convincing, his characters -- particularly his small-town eccentrics -- keep his plays from becoming entirely out of touch with reality. Anna is an oddball who's slowly revealed to us; her past and her connection to Charlie's life are delightful surprises that turn up just as the story is about to consume itself with sweetness.
What I Did Last Summer
Continues through Saturday, September 1, at the Studio One Performing Arts Center, 4520 East Thomas. Call 602-468-6021.
The cast makes up in charm for what it lacks in skill. Emily Mulligan-Ferry startled me with her big, blowzy Aldonza earlier this season in a teeny production of Man of La Mancha, and she's equally surprising here. Mulligan-Ferry can't yet be 30, but she convinced me she was the mother of two teenagers with her warm, saucy portrayal of Grace. As written, Grace is a contradiction: a lipsticked, Betty MacDonald kind of heroine who admonishes her son for swearing and warns him that "you can always tell a gentleman by his linen and his leather," but who isn't above a summer tryst with the local grocer. Mulligan-Ferry makes her real by downplaying Grace's occasional breezy asides and punching up her Supermom scenes.
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Except for the perplexing smile she wears throughout, Drew Riley's Anna is a perfectly charming Gurney oddball. It's clear she's having a blast with speeches about the unfortunate provinciality of her community, which fears her because she's an artist. As Ted, Jason Walters sounds some discordant notes of his own in a monologue about the horrors of growing up. Hollow-eyed and spindly limbed, Walters adds some comic depth to a throwaway role with his manic giggle and frenetic face pulling. And Brian Ronalds brings an earnestness and sincerity that shine through Charlie's sappiest speeches about the rigors of adolescence.
Director Tom Leveen is attuned to Gurney's melancholy. His Last Summer is largely dark, with a black backdrop and solid, cheerless props and an urban edginess to most of the acting. His vigorous pacing and firm staging keep this story -- which is packed with fourth-wall speeches -- chugging along, though he might have done better to rework scenes in which his cast is made to manipulate an invisible automobile or eat an invisible meal.
But even when its denizens are munching pretend potatoes, What I Did Last Summer provides a cool respite from a nearly thespian-free August. While this production didn't change my opinion of A.R. Gurney, it went a long way toward bending my sniffy attitude about theaters housed in shopping malls.