Broadway's loss last season of the much-anticipated revival of Terrence McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" because of cast difficulties in rehearsal has become a major gain for Annapolis theater-goers. Audiences at Bay Theatre will discover a thoroughly professional production of this surprisingly current but nearly 20-year-old bittersweet comedy.
In her mission to bring great theater to Annapolis, Bay Theatre artistic director Janet Luby feels "fortunate to be the first to snap up this play, when it's virtually impossible to get the rights if playing on Broadway."
Audiences will also be greeted by a vibrant new theater with a smartly redesigned lobby and an innovatively enhanced staging space, in celebration of Bay's ninth season.
Under the expert direction of Gillian Drake, who brings an impressive list of major D.C. area theater credits to her Bay Theatre directing debut, "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" instantly becomes fascinating theater.
The four characters are the two star siblings Sam and Chloe; Chloe's husband, John; and Sam's wife, Sally, who inherited the Fire Island beach house of her brother David, who recently died of AIDS. On this bittersweet July 4 weekend, they each deal with separate homophobic fears and with the secret that Chloe and Sam are aware of: John has slept with Sally. Another secret later revealed is that John has esophageal cancer.
The four-person cast of striving, caring people convince audience members that they too are enjoying a Fourth of July holiday together, viewing the same sandy beach and ocean the characters see.
This is the result of a number of talented, dedicated people, including set designer Ken Sheats, who created a beach scene on a panel along the theater side wall complete with fence and sea grass and sand that extends into the audience. On stage is a credible beach house porch complete with a table and chairs, a grill and even a shower stall with running water. There's also a narrow swimming pool where actors can splash and even submerge themselves.
Before the play begins, the beach atmosphere is enhanced by Chris Baine's sound design, which seemingly places seagulls flying above the audience. Later, sound enhances several monologue freezes, and a selection of classic jazz and classical music is a veritable feast. Lighting designers Steven Strawn and Preston Strawn help enhance the mood and atmosphere throughout. To the light and sound must be added the summer grilling fragrances, which come courtesy of stage manager Beth Terranova, whose myriad duties include cooking for each performance, prop rotation and even laundering towels.
Bay's intimate stage seems expanded when the play opens and the cast arrives onstage through three entrances.
Through their dimly lit, freeze monologues, each character's innermost thoughts are revealed, although their spoken words to each other often indicate boundaries.
Sally is played by Nancy Bannon, who conveys Sally's confusion at her brother's beach house gift. Initially seen attempting to capture the beauty of the beach on canvas, in side scenes she reveals Sally's sensitivity along with self-doubts about her pregnancy. Sally's discomfort with her dead brother's sexuality seems at odds with her artistic nature. Aloud she expresses her fears for the unknown swimmer she waved to as he left his robe on the beach, which may relate to her unborn child's welfare. She exhibits a wide range of cultural knowledge far surpassing that of her husband, Sam, for whom she expresses affection while revealing an ambivalence toward John and Chloe.
Britton Herring fits the role of tony prep school administrator John, who is coolly detached, immersed in game playing and crossword puzzles, and comfortable only while holding those people who are closest to him at arm's length. Herring's nuanced performance signals John's underlying fear and inability to cope with his cancer.
Michael Propster as Sam, a kind of Everyman contractor, conveys his character's aching need for his wife's love and fidelity along with his addiction to success. Uncomfortable with life at this Fire Island gay enclave, Propster's Sam becomes distressed when he gets a splinter in his foot that may become an open sore inviting infection.
In a memorable debut, Colleen Delany plays hyperactive hostess Chloe, who freely bustles about in a swimsuit as she prepares an infinite variety of breakfasts before starting to think of what to grill for lunch. She babbles in French and sings a stream of show tunes, greets the neighbors warmly and seems unafraid of the truth, although she is reluctant to discuss her husband's illness. Delany's Chloe is a warm, vital, complex woman who possesses unique wisdom.
"Lips Together, Teeth Apart" continues on weekends, Thursdays through Sundays, through Nov. 13 at Bay Theatre, 275 West St. in Annapolis. To order individual tickets or season subscriptions, go to baytheatre.org or call the box office at 410-268-1333.