"Southern Comforts" is Intoxicating
By Geary Danihy
Remember when plays had beginnings, middles and ends, you actually cared about the characters being portrayed and the dialogue wasn’t a lexicon of profanity? Well, if you do then “Southern Comforts,” a delightful romantic comedy by Kathleen Clark that recently opened at Stratford’s Square One Theatre, is the show for you
Directed with a deft hand by Square One’s artistic director Tom Holehan, this two-character, one-act play is the sugar-and-spice story of Amanda Cross (Alice McMahon), a life-loving Southern lady of a certain age, and Gus Klingman (Al Kulcsar), a curmudgeonly New Jerseyan who keeps a tight hold on the little life he allows himself.
They meet by happenstance when Amanda, a widow up from Tennessee to visit her daughter, drops by Gus’s house to deliver pledge cards for the local church. A convenient thunderstorm -- perhaps the same thunderstorm that forced Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to flee the rain and meet up in a gazebo in Central Park (it’s an old standby cute-meeting device) – holds her in Gus’s austere surroundings long enough to allow for several sparks to fly. No, the two don’t literally break out into dance, but they do start a “dance” of sorts which propels the balance of the play, as Amanda slowly yet inevitably breaks through the hard carapace that Gus has constructed to protect himself from life’s pains (and, unfortunately, its pleasures).
McMahon and Kulcsar are both believable and engaging as the odd couple in this reworking of possibly one of the oldest dramatic structures: boy meets girl; boy wins girl; boy loses girl; boy realizes he’s been a dolt and eats humble pie and thereby wins back girl. Yes, it’s all of the old Andy Hardy movies, but it’s also “Notting Hill.” The formula is often used because audiences love it so, and playwright Clark uses it to a fare-the-well, writing dialogue that the two actors make their own.
I would have liked a bit more Southern syrup in McMahon’s delivery, but that’s a minor point, because she nails her character and presents a broad range of emotions without ever going over the top. This is most especially true near the end of the play when Gus, who is a widower, suggests he will be buried next to his first wife, a statement that Amanda, now married to Gus, responds to as a dagger has been thrust into her heart. Her hurt, her pain, is manifest, but there are no histrionics -- it’s a great, heart-aching moment.
However, Amanda essentially stays Amanda throughout the play. It is Gus who must change, and Kulcsar does a magnificent job in allowing his character to begrudgingly open up to the allure and enticements Amanda offers. Kulcsar has many fine moments (especially when Gus is intent on hanging a storm window – a prop that provides continuity) as he delivers his dialogue with dead-on timing, often stone-faced save for eyes that telegraph pain, confusion desire and…fear, and his final line, worth the entire evening, captures what has happened to him over the course of the play -- listen for the pause and the rise in the voice on the last two words. It’s good stuff.
“Southern Comforts” runs through March 17. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com.