In rural Alabama, the only thing worse than being the town slut is being the town widow. At least that’s how Lizzy Nash (Courtney Patterson) has felt since her husband died in a roofing accident. She spends her days reading quietly on her back porch, which is adorned with a collection of wind chimes; she’s avoiding going back to her job as a high school English teacher. However, that quiet ends when widower and high school physics teacher Jack Key (Bryan Brinkley) moves into the abandoned house next door, and installs a Maytag dryer on his back porch.
Lizzy makes her way over to tell Jack to remove the dryer from the porch, and they discover a bag of love letters exchanged between the previous tenant, an old widower, and his wife during their 40-year relationship. Convinced that the old man’s spirit is still in the house, Jack starts sleeping outside, and he and Lizzy bond over conversations about grief, laundry and regret in the backyard. As the seasons change, Jack and Lizzy read through the letters, and start to write a love story of their own. Audrey Cefaly’s “Maytag Virgin,” onstage at Aurora Theatre through Feb. 11, is the story of how long it takes to move in, and move on, after loss.
The play is well-written, and is as much quips and sarcasm as it is earnest dialogue about learning how to love and whether God makes mistakes. The conversations bounce very quickly from sincere to silly: In one scene, Lizzy says, “People say life is unfair, but no one says that about death,” and in another, she exclaims, “I told my pastor I was having impure thoughts about a Maytag dryer!” Cefaly also explores this very real clash for the characters between the customs of modern courtship through text messages and online dating, and a quaint culture where people still cook for each other to express romantic interest.
The chemistry between Patterson and Brinkley is as good as it gets. These are two experienced actors who make sure that every syllable is dripping with Southern charm. Audiences might remember Patterson from Aurora’s productions of “Split in Three” and “Boeing! Boeing!,” and in this production, she captures so well the internal tug of war between vulnerability and fear. Brinkley, who is making his Aurora debut, makes it hard not to want to shout, “Just kiss him already!” From the first scene when she welcomes him to the neighborhood with a fresh baked pie — the stereotype of a meddling, eccentric neighbor — they create an experience that is both intimate and instantly relatable.
In most two-person shows, lighting and sound are often used to fill the dead space in the air due to lack of stage business, but that is not the case in “Maytag.” Sound designer Daniel Terry’s effects provide only the ambience necessary for the story, and not a thing more, and he leverages the wind chimes well. The two actors fill the space and never miss a beat.
Set designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay bring their signature hyperrealism to the backyards of these two country houses. The scenic design is absolutely impeccable. From the herb garden to the assortment of wind chimes and birdhouses, to the colorful glass bottles hanging from Lizzy’s tree, the attention to detail is splendid. Even the trash heaps in Jack’s mess of a backyard look real.
That said, this level of realism weighs the show down in some areas. The fake grass kept rolling up and the actors played it off well, but it was a distraction. This is also a very prop heavy show, and though props designer Kathryn Muse did a nice job, it seemed cumbersome to move props on and off stage, and the scene transitions were long. As beautiful as it all is, this is a situation where Coco Chanel’s advice to take one thing off would have come in handy.
Still, Patterson’s and Brinkley’s touching performances illuminate the script in the best ways. It is as if they were built to play these roles. From the first tiff to the last kiss, they pull the audience into Lizzy and Jack’s budding romance, and it is simply delightful.
Through Feb. 11. $20-$55. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: “Maytag Virgin” is a laugh-filled, poignant look at love after loss.
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