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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll




Commons Theatre

I was looking for something to do this morning, by way of procrastination, and so I picked up the barbell. After ten curls my lower back and my self-image engaged in an angry debate. They briskly reached a conclusion, and I realized I'm getting old.

Well, older. (It's so easy to hedge the issue.) Old. Aging, the thing we put off the most. For men, it means a loss of strength and, in many ways, a loss of mobility. For women, I don't know. Men aren't supposed to even presume to comment on women these days, but I've seen what's going on and I know that women, as they age, suffer the erosion of hope and that they're keenly aware as each rope of their parachute frays and snaps.

Which brings us, oh ye brothers and sisters currently pushing 40, to the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Because it's about two couples in their late 30s. The men, Roo and Barney, cut cane in the north of Australia seven months out of the year, heading 2,000 miles south to Melbourne each summer to party away the layoff season with their girlfriends, Olive and Nancy. And so it's been for 16 wild summers, each one marked by a souvenir doll that Roo gives to his gal, Olive. But the 17th summer Nancy can't make it because she up and married someone else. So Barney, who's not the ladies' man he used to be, is fixed up for the summer with Olive's astringent friend, Pearl. Meanwhile, Roo is broke and depressed because he walked off the job in a macho huff when he discovered that some young bloke could cut cane faster than him. Lastly, Olive, barmaid and aging party girl, simply refuses to believe that the keg party is finally winding down.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Australian playwright Ray Lawler, dates back to 1955, the heyday of domestic realism, when plays were dramas, and had a climax, and took place in a single room, and made a statement about life without being ashamed for doing so. Today such plays seem quaint. Our minds, razed by over three decades of video culture (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), may grow impatient with the labor of dramatic exposition and the development of anything approaching characterization. However, if we hang on until the second scene, and if the cast would kindly calm down and trust the play more than their own charisma, we may yet learn something about that insidious threshold to middle age, something more explicit perhaps than we're able to get from Thirtysomething.

It's in the second scene, when a hung-over Barney persuades Pearl to hang out for the summer, that the play comes alive for me. Cameron Pfiffner (as Barney) gives a winning performance here. And what a sly piece of seduction. First, Barney candidly admits his womanizing past: "Whenever I've met a nice-looking woman, I've always felt like an excited eel in a fish basket." Then he philosophizes a bit, about how he's always been on the lookout for a special woman, one who's smart and sensitive enough to see through him, to see beneath his veneer of self-gratification and accept all the love that he has to give. And, as Barney slouches back into the couch, in the physical shape of a sigh, Pearl moves the newspaper and sits next to him.

I would have liked to see something at least equally exciting going on between Olive and Roo, but actors Morgan McCabe and Rodney Lee Sell don't manage it. McCabe doesn't quite settle into her character, giving the impression instead that she's auditioning for every major female role Tennessee Williams ever wrote. I prefer Sell's performance as Roo, which, based on Roo's depression and submerged anger, is played down, and sullen, and moody. But, in terms of ensemble acting, Sell's characterization is ultimately undramatic, since Roo siphons the energy off any scene he shares. Still, at the end of the play, when Roo rips that 17th doll to pieces, it's incredible. All that torture and tension comes right back at you.

In minor roles, India Cooper is generally undistinguished as Pearl, except when she's acting directly opposite Pfiffner, and Greg Bryant is wholly undistinguished as Johnnie Dowd, the young bloke who symbolizes Roo's lost youth. But watch for Rengin Altay, as Bubba, the girl next door. Bubba's pretty much a symbol too--a young Olive who's determined not to screw up--but Altay presents that symbol in very human terms, so Bubba comes off fresh, ingenuous, and vital, sort of like my overall impression of Australia as a country.

Sandra Grand's direction shows some insecurity with the physical constraints of realism. Although David Davis's set is really wonderfully homey, Grand can't seem to make her cast feel at home there. Actors are constantly flitting around as if Grand believed that movement, any movement including hyperactivity, is what holds an audience's attention. So that when the real rough-and-tumble action starts, it lacks dramatic contrast, and the guys seem self-conscious about harming the set.

Grand shows much more skill in recognizing and channeling the emotional undercurrents of the play. And that's the important thing, since so much of the tension within these characters depends on what's either left unsaid or unacknowledged or else comes out as white lies. After all, these are cane cutters and barmaids here, not college graduates. Grand seems to capture them best in the morning scenes: in Olive's slattern attitude, in the way Roo runs a cold eye over the want ads, and in the whole subtle cannibalism of a love affair starved of awareness and growth.

No, I'm not going to tell you how it turns out, or who walks away wiser, ruined, changed, and unchanged. This isn't a great play, you see, but it has a certain grace, and that grace is in the telling of its story. I will say that the characters at least come to a realization of what their lives have meant up to the present. But whether they act on that knowledge, adapt, meet the challenge--all that remains ambiguous anyway. The real crux of the matter isn't growing old, which is inevitable, but how to keep growing. And if you've led your life like one of Peter Pan's lost boys, as I seem to have done, it's going to come as one hell of a surprise when the undertaker lathers you up for a shave.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T.V. Martin.

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