Not to be insensitive to the fact that playwright Leonard Gross is a widower, but it’s one thing to see how writing “Conversations with My Wife” may have been therapeutic for him. It’s another thing entirely for an audience, watching his painstaking therapy from a distance.
In Gross’ semi-autobiographical two-character drama, Sam Green is a largely unfulfilled author, still grieving the loss of Sara, his wife of nearly 50 years. At first, we meet her in flashback scenes mostly dealing with the phases of her death. Eventually, though, Sara mysteriously appears to Sam as she was in her prime, offering a voice of reason that helps him work out some inner demons.
Theatre in the Square’s world-premiere production, directed by Heidi Cline McKerley, begins at a lethargic crawl from which it never fully recovers. Part of the problem is the casting of John Stephens as Sam. More widely known as a director and the founder of Theatre Gael, as an actor he isn’t always the warmest or most confident stage presence.
For the first 30 minutes, Sam basically paces around his San Francisco penthouse (elegantly designed by John Thigpen), reading aloud from unpublished manuscripts about his life with Sara. And Stephens delivers it all as a monotonous lecture, in the disaffected way a court reporter might read back testimony during a trial.
Whether because of a flaw in the writing, the directing or the acting, that’s valuable time that could have been spent developing an emotional dimension to the character and a personal connection with the audience. Put down the book and talk to us, not at us. We need to feel Sam’s pain before we can really care if it heals.
As the dearly departed Sara, Judy Leavell (“The Lady with All the Answers”) is very much the life of the show, exuding a lovely naturalism that she doesn’t often get to play. Without a word, the performance speaks volumes whenever Sara longs to gently caress her husband – so close, and yet so far away, in another realm, just beyond actual touch.
Still, Leavell has her mouthful of words, too. Gross’ dialogue isn’t much better than his monologue. What starts by sounding like a lecture soon becomes an obviously orchestrated debate. He’s clinging to the past; she urges him to move forward. She thinks he needs to get over it; he’s afraid of getting used to it. He says “ghost”; she says “a consequence of your exceedingly fertile imagination.”
Whether Sam provided Sara with a “comfortable” life or an “adventurous” one depends on which of them is talking. But whatever cathartic adventure the play posed for Gross, this Square production fails to truly move or involve the rest of us – if not making us comfortable, exactly, then at least lulling us into a state of disinterest.
“Conversations with My Wife”
Through Oct. 31. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays. $20-$33. Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369, theatreinthesquare.com.
Bottom Line: Besides the playwright, who cares?
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