Opposites attract--but in a good play they'd better do more than that, or you lack the conflict to fuel a plot. It's the fact that opposites usually repel before they can connect that provides the kind of friction that a lot of mainly two-character plays--Marty, Birdbath, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune--thrive on.
The best-known, most vivid example is the improbable temporary match between Laura Wingfield and Jim O'Connor in The Glass Menagerie. This brief encounter between a glad-handing extrovert and a frightened rabbit works, even though Laura and Jim's connection evaporates in the heat of reality. Throughout their candlelit scene, Tennessee Williams provides the one true recipe for all love scenes: show how the strengths of one lover fit the needs of the other, how what's missing in one is, often unknowingly, offered by the other. It's even more poignant when only one lover knows this and so is all the more desperate to press home that revelation to the other.
In The Woolgatherer, William Mastrosimone puts the formula into dramatic overdrive. From their meeting at the candy counter where Rose works, Rose and Cliff seem too far apart to be good for each other. Rose is morbidly afraid of life, suffers from hives and hemophilia, and lives in a mildewed Chicago apartment--the setting for the entire play--that she's furnished by scavenging. It comes complete with a symbolically shuttered window, a dead houseplant, and thin walls, on the other side of which lurks a nosy neighbor.
Where Rose is pointlessly secretive, Cliff is earthy, direct, and talkative--a truck driver who regales Rose with tales about killer crows that attack his rig, or a long monologue about the boredom and frustration of his drives. Cliff particularly endears himself to Rose with his description of the dazzling blue serenity of the Pacific as it suddenly appears after a long and grueling haul.
If Cliff's commanding symbol is the open ocean, Rose's is the memory of seeing four rare cranes stoned to death in a zoo by a pack of vicious brats. Defensively prudish, emotionally paralyzed, Rose sees herself as an endangered bird in a world of mindless cruelty. Like Laura, she's learned to prize symbols over people; her glass menagerie consists of souvenir sweaters she requests from the men she meets. She dreams of leaving Chicago to raise--what else?--rabbits.
Cliff is the most exotic guy Rose has happened upon--a constant traveler, while Rose has been, as he says, "cooped up too long." And to Cliff, Rose is a homebody who could well be the perfect anchor for his lifelong drift. Mastrosimone shows, with remarkably little predictability, how their jagged edges fit--how when Cliff tries to leave Rose, he finds he's left something behind that he needs. Cliff disarms Rose's humorless literalness by skillfully putting her on: "You remind me of somebody I never knew," he says. She slowly loses her balance, has to break down and listen, so that when Cliff asks, "Rose, do you believe in life before death?" she knows better than to try to answer in words.
And Cliff learns from Rose--how not to give up on dreams before they have a chance to happen. He says he won't lust for a better life, because that would make him hate the one he has, but Rose's fantasies trigger in Cliff a taste for his own.
Despite the seeming inevitability of this rocky mating ritual, Mastrosimone sometimes works too hard to set up his opposites. His Rose reaches extremes that nearly push her over the edge of credibility and sanity--when she wears lipstick and perfume alone in bed, for example, and talks to herself. The playwright also hits the symbolic buttons too often; real people don't merge through metaphors alone--they don't come together, as Cliff and Rose seem to, because one's ocean imagery fits with the other's identification with cranes. But the bedrock beauty of these attracting opposites gives the play an unforced power; audiences watch it as if they're part of it.
Of the three productions of The Woolgatherer I've seen--by Goodman Studio Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and now Transient Theatre--the last is easily the most shoestring. It's performed upstairs at the punk-oriented rock bar Dreamerz--which means the decor is graffiti-smeared walls screaming with off-color slogans. You know prudish Rose would never endure this environment--unless she hides a Mr. Goodbar schizophrenia even Mastrosimone doesn't suspect. The Transient's Rose must make do with a frail wooden cabinet masquerading as a fridge, and her one electric light seems in constant danger of expiring.
But Transient's poverty doesn't matter; from the start, Scot Casey's staging goes straight to this play's big heart and keeps it pumping to the end. Though both actors are too young for their parts, with faces too unlined to suggest lives of hard knocks, they play to each other's strengths in the same way that their characters play to each other's weaknesses.
A likable lug, Tom Daniel's Cliff is a loose-limbed charmer for whom there's nothing either casual or contrived in this sudden maverick courtship (Rose could be his last chance, too). Christina Koehlinger initially looks too pretty and shows too few quirks to gain lovelorn Rose the right sympathy. But by the end, Koehlinger makes us taste the vulnerability that Rose has harbored under her cardboard armor; we sense Rose's fear of feeling and aching incompleteness, which make Cliff want to protect her from herself. By the end, we know exactly what it would cost these well-felt opposites not to connect.