“This is the way the universe begins,” says the Narrator at the start of Craig Wright’s poetic, funny/sad “The Pavilion,” a work about second chances, regrets, nostalgia – and time. As our guide through the shoals, the Narrator is obviously a descendant of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” even to taking on roles of various other characters. But the story he tells, while less rich than Wilder’s, has a lovely poignancy all its own. Much of this shines through the Westport Country Playhouse production which, however, is unevenly acted and lacking in intimacy.
The setting is the small town of Pine City, Minnesota. The time is now. The occasion is the high school’s 20th reunion to which come Kari and Peter, once voted the Cutest Senior Couple. The Narrator plays several classmates, male and female.
Kari is unhappily married to the local golf pro, while Peter has a girlfriend 15 years his junior. Plainly, Kari and Peter’s candle still flames. But something awful happened those high school years that cannot be undone.
“All I want is a chance to start over,” says Peter. To which Kari answers, “For you and me to start over, the entire universe would have to begin again.” Roads taken are irreversible. One chance is all we get. The world spins on.
Factually, the play takes place at The Pavilion, a 100-year-old dance hall slated for a fiery razing the same night as the reunion. Of course, it’s a developer who wants the property. Symbolically, the pavilion is “a momentary sphere, a world made of stars, dancing, a temporary shelter for the human project,” says the Narrator who traces the evolution of time from the first raindrop on to this very moment.
Although some of this may sound pretentious, it isn’t. Author Wright has a comic as well as naturalistic ear. His sympathy towards his characters never makes them into shallow mouthpieces out to prove a thesis. Rather, they journey not on a one-way express track but by fits and starts, as we all do.
Yet the evening suffers from the Playhouse production which substitutes literalness for illusion. Although a large, ramp-like structure sweeps skywards from the floor, Hugh Landwehr’s set design (like Tony Walton’s over-realistic background for the Playhouse’s “Our Town” some years back) fights the script which calls for a setting “suggested only by a pair of benches.”
The problem affects the directing and acting as well. Chad Rabinovitz’s direction intrudes on the script’s gossamer qualities. Michael Milligan is most successful as the Narrator. But, as many of the other characters, he’s versatile and quicksilver but overly zealous. As Peter, Michael Laurence doesn’t find much that would help us empathize with a cad-turned-would be romantic. Even his song sounds generic.
But Tracy Middendorf digs into Kari’s soul. Tender one moment, revengeful the next, she’s a woman hardened by having had life pass her by. Graceful and clear-headed, she approaches the possibility of reliving the past by saying, “I don’t want the universe to start over. I just want to let it go. I want to let it go on.” Helped by Clifton Taylor’s expressive lighting and Ryan Rumery’s enchanted sound design and original music, Middendorf realizes the play’s complex awareness that, no matter how painful, “we have to say yes to time.” Forgiveness is the only way of moving forward.
“The Pavilion” is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through May 31. Call 227-4177. On the Net: www.westportplayhouse.org
(This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Hour.)