SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA
at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theater
"Minimalism" is based on the definition of theater as a cognitive process, de-emphasizing performance in order to arrive at a purely intellectual statement of the playwright's thesis. More often a piece of theater is classified as "minimalist" by outside observers rather than by the artist himself--for the first generation after Beckett, anyway. So director Greg Cesear may be correct in calling James Prideaux' Lemonade and Megan Terry's Sanibel and Captiva "minimalist plays," though Prideaux is known primarily for his television writing and Terry for her affiliation in the late 60s with the improvisation-oriented Open Theatre--forums for some of the most decidedly unintellectual and unliterary theater of the last three decades. However these one-act plays are categorized, though, it should come as no surprise that the production that succeeds best here is the one that adheres least to the principles of minimalism.
The premise of Lemonade is simple enough: Mabel Lamston, a well-dressed suburban matron, sets up a lemonade stand by the highway one afternoon. Soon she is joined by her neighbor, Edith Northrup, who also sets up a lemonade stand. Neither sells any lemonade, but as the ladies sample each other's wares--Mabel's is laced with gin and Edith's with vodka--and pass the time talking of their families, their stories begin to take on an eerie ambiguity. The lover for whom Edith plans to divorce her husband may not really exist, and Mabel's disabled son and visually impaired daughter may in fact be perfectly healthy. ("But I tried!" Mabel insists. "I had Marilyn doing eye exercises in reverse, and I was forever putting obstacles in Randolph's way, but he was just too nimble. They were wonderful children--it was the least I could do for them.") Eventually we come to understand the boredom and emptiness that drives these affluent women to construct and cling to their elaborate fantasies. "If it never happened, why do I remember it so clearly?" Edith demands, speaking of the alleged fire that destroyed her children. "Why can I still smell the smoke?" "Lots of things that occupy our minds never happened and they never will," Mabel answers sympathetically, adding, "I admire you for decorating the children's graves, even if they're not dead. They will be one day, and you'll be that much further ahead." Though Prideaux' dialogue is not unlike the abbreviated vernacular of conventional drama, there's an artificial formality to the tempo that Cesear makes the most of rather than fights.
Though one woman is blond and plump and the other dark and lean, one wears a dress and the other slacks, one carries a sun hat and the other a fan, their actions parallel one another as closely as images in a mirror. (At one particularly hilarious moment both ladies simultaneously pour from their pitchers into each other's cups.) Contributing copiously to the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee humor are Jane McCarty as Mabel and Anne Magrady as Edith, two seasoned actresses with a well-practiced sense of comic timing.
The fact that the actors are too young for their roles in Sanibel and Captiva is one thing that sabotages Cesear's rendering of the play, written in a style a press release describes as "symbolic realism." Originally composed as a radio play, Terry's script provides scant opportunity for movement, literally or dramatically: Esther and Bud are an elderly couple fishing on the beach of their Florida retirement home, both avoiding the awareness that the world is passing them by. Esther has received a letter from the president of the country club requesting that Bud not come around any more, a cruel epistle that she vows to tear up but never does. Bud vows to catch a sea trout for their dinner but ignores his wife's warnings to reel in his catch before it gets away--and when he finally heeds her advice, the fish has escaped.
Rather than allow the actors to embellish Terry's spare, stilted dialogue with some humanizing warmth, Cesear has his actors speak it precisely as written. The result is an exchange of disembodied stichomythia that bears no resemblance to real people, let alone two long-term intimates, talking with one another. Edward Bouchard and Donna Vittorio are both competent enough performers, but they come across more as father and child than as two grandparents--an impression heightened by the latter's meek treble voice. True, Bud occasionally cuddles up to Esther in the manner of a little boy to his mother, but instead of reversing the prevailing balance this anomaly only confuses us further.
And never at any moment did I believe that there was a fish tugging at the end of that fishing pole--not even a symbolic fish.