Any theater company can make you fall in love again with a play you adore. The real mark for creative moxie is whether they can breathe life into a script that felt DOA the first time you saw it.
When I saw Noah Haidle's portrait of a young, benumbed widow at the Goodman Theatre in 2006, it felt swallowed up in a sea of self-conscious whimsy with no real emotional stakes — a situation not helped by the fact that Haidle apparently believes that metaphors are best understood when repeatedly struck with a mallet, like the dramaturgical equivalent of a carnival "ring the bell" game. But Erica Weiss' staging for The Gift Theatre, though it can't exactly disguise the flaws in Haidle's craft, manages to make them feel less grating.
Weiss, who raised her profile substantially as co-creator and director of Caitlin Montanye Parrish's beautiful and bittersweet "A Twist of Water" (which had an off-Broadway run this past fall under Weiss' direction) has previously shown chops at sculpting stories of loss and rebirth with an adroit mixture of wit and well-placed earnestness. It's admirable that she can do the same here while working with much thinner material.
It's been two years since the nameless widow (Hillary Clemens) lost her firefighter husband (James D. Farruggio), who died trying to rescue a baby. She keeps his soul (Jay Worthington) locked in a box at the foot of her bed, releasing him only for a nightly hug. As the play begins, she is preparing for her first date since widowhood. The wooer (Kyle Zornes) is another firefighter, and unlike, say, "Blithe Spirit," he can see and hear the Soul. The play rewinds the tape of her relationship with her husband (called "Body"), from their first romantic encounter to their acrimonious final words.
There are shades of Anthony Minghella's 1990 film "Truly Madly Deeply," in which a grieving woman is revisited by the spirit of her dead cellist lover as he tries to ease her into a relationship with another (living) man. (Farruggio's Body even has an interlude where he tries to play cello.) But where the characters in Minghella's film felt connected to a larger world with complex concerns, Haidle leaves his stranded in a nameless purgatory. That may be intentional as a way of showing how our attempts to avoid grief create a numbing vacuum, but it also makes the characters feel even more obvious as symbolic types, rather than fleshed-out relatable people.
But somehow, Weiss and her cast manage to mostly sidestep the sinkholes in the script and help us focus on the moments of genuine intimacy and revelation. Clemens and Farruggio are particularly good as a young couple trying to figure out how to grow up together and grow past the pains of disappointment after the first flush of romance fades. The incomparable intimacy of the Gift Theatre venue helps us feel as if we're voyeurs for their fights and flirtations.
Stephen H. Carmody's attic-bedroom set with its washed-out palette of grays and tans neatly suggests the boxed-in drabness of a woman's life that has, at least temporarily, lost its blood-and-bones vitality by lingering in the gloomy shadows of regret. The script remains skeletal, but Weiss' cast finds the shreds of meat on its bones and tears into them with gutsy vulnerability.
When: Through April 21
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 773-283-7071 or thegifttheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun