The new year has ushered in excellent local presentations by the Bay Theatre Company, Colonial Players and Compass Rose Theater, raising the bar for future months.
The Compass Rose production "Look Homeward, Angel," continuing through Feb. 9, is the benchmark of a superbly acted and produced local drama.
Ketti Frings' 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is based on Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical first novel. Fans of Wolfe will find his characters coming to life in the setting of Eliza Gant's Dixieland boardinghouse.
The frantic activity of maintaining Eliza's establishment occurs across two levels, where members of the Gant family — including overworked daughter Helen and errand-running son Eugene — run around to cater to boarders' needs.
The theater's height is well-utilized to create second-story bedrooms and first-floor living and dining areas.
Director Patrick Walsh uses the space to naturally enliven action. Rooms are created smoothly in onstage scene changes that become part of the drama while avoiding interruptive dark time. When older son Ben suffers a debilitating illness, his bedroom is created at center stage before audience members, drawing them in and heightening drama.
Most notably, Walsh has assembled a cast of 14 ideally suited to their roles, from a boy who forms a bond of friendship to a parent who values her boarders' comfort over her child's needs. Some form tenuous friendships, others experience isolation.
Shane O'Loughlin plays 17-year-old Eugene Gant, capturing the awkward boy's desperate loneliness, yearning for education and determination to improve his writing skills — and to understand his parents' complex marriage.
A character considered largely based on a young Thomas Wolfe, Eugene is much like his father, frustrated by his lack of independence and desperate to be free of his mother's demands. O'Loughlin's Eugene seethes with anger similar to that of his father, W.O. Gant, a frustrated sculptor who desperately wants to be free of his wife's obsessive ambition.
O'Loughlin conveys Eugene's love and respect for older brother Ben, who wants Eugene to escape family responsibilities and gain an education to build his own life.
O'Loughlin's portrayal of Eugene's joyous discovery of love is touching, and thus makes his heartache totally convincing.
His love interest, Laura James, played by Lindsay Clemmons, is wispy but strong, guiding Eugene toward a larger world where he can pursue his interests and attain independence.
As Ben, Bret Jaspers captures the essence of this central tragic character — a newspaper reporter unable to break away from his mother's grasp, yet determined to be sure Eugene won't be doomed to the same fate. Ben finds an escape in the embrace of boarder Mrs. Marie "Fatty" Pert, played by Janise Whelan. Jaspers gives an honest, raw performance and sets up an affecting climactic scene.
Another formidable male presence is patriarch W.O. Gant, portrayed by Gary Goodson. His drunken bellowing shakes the heights of Compass Rose Theater, and his tender compassion toward Eugene shows the audience their understanding of each other's longings.
Goodson's Gant shouts for Eugene with the primal cry of a sculptor whose talent has never been fully realized. Most terrible are Gant's conflicted feelings toward his wife, Eliza.
Eliza is the story's driving force and is captured in all her conflicting facets by Compass Rose founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne. It's a role Merry-Browne seems destined to play and might be her finest performance to date.
Eliza is a driven, ambitious woman who has convinced herself that her shrewd bargaining and obsessive frugality will create a real estate empire benefiting her children — and allowing them to forget being forced to act as servants to Dixieland's boarders.
Merry-Browne's Eliza is complex, driven by love and greed to manipulate her children to realize her dreams, mistakenly believing they share them. Her tortured marriage, in which passion has turned into loathing, is powerfully detailed by Merry-Browne and Goodson through a climactic confrontation that leaves the audience shaken.
"Look Homeward, Angel" continues weekends through Feb. 9 at Compass Rose, 49 Spa Road, Annapolis. Call 410-980-6662 for showtimes and ticket information.