Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Southern Comforts at the Bickford
Also see Bob's reviews of The Seafarer and Maritius
Amanda is a widow who has driven up to a small New Jersey town from her home in Tennessee to visit with her married daughter and her family. She comes to Gus's house on a July Sunday afternoon to pick up his church donation. The stingy, curmudgeonly Gus, a retired stone mason, is a stick in the mud who likes to stay close to home and be left alone to perform household chores and repairs. Amanda is a voluble retired librarian who loves books and likes to go places and do things. What they have in common is that each of them had miserably, unhappy marriages which have left them with remorse and regret. Amanda talks about the long ago suicide death of her husband who had brought "the war home with him" after serving on the battlefield in World War II. Gus is touched by Amanda's sympathetic understanding as he also was scarred emotionally by his battlefield experience back then.
The final scene in act one takes us to September. The two have decided to marry, but are experiencing cold feet. To Gus's consternation, Amanda is planning on transporting several moving van loads of furniture and books up from Tennessee. Amanda raises the serious issue of Gus's "interest" in sex. She is hot to trot and thrilled when the uncomfortable Gus states that he "probably" is still sexually functional. Finally, Gus says that Amanda should "stay here tonight, in my bed, and we'll make our decision tomorrow." Amanda agrees. "It'll save a lot of talking."
There is a cute coda to the first act during which we watch furniture and books being moved into Gus's living room before the house lights come up. Given the little furniture that is added, I wondered whether Amanda exaggerated how much she was bringing so that Gus would be relieved rather than upset by her few additions.
November finds Amanda and Gus Klingman uncomfortably at home. Amanda is tired from raking leaves and wants to be left alone to work on a book she is writing on her family's history. Gus is entreating her for help as he comically struggles while installing storm windows. December finds the couple preparing to go out to shop for a cemetery headstone. Amanda has assumed that they would share a headstone. Gus has a stone with Helen, who had been his wife for forty years and is the mother of his son. He had thought they were just buying a stone for Amanda. Amanda is angry and hurt, even more so when Gus offers that there is room for Amanda to be buried next to him and Helen. Amanda now wants to reclaim her plot in her family's section at the Celebration Hill cemetery in Tennessee. She stalks out to return to her daughter's house.
Two weeks later, Amanda comes to the house as Gus is about to go to visit her at her daughter's. The miraculously changed Gus tells her, "I'm going to drive you to Tennessee". Amanda snaps at him, "That's your solution to drive me back to Tennessee to get my plot back". Gus woos, "I wanted to say we'll be together forever." He then goes into the next room, and re-enters pulling a little red wagon in which rests a headstone on which their names are engraved. "I wanted to take you down to make you happy. I've always thought of myself. Now what I want is for you to be happy." The happy Amanda now tells Gus that she is going to take their stone to Celebration Hill.
Eric Hafen has directed a smooth and efficient production. Jerry Marino (Gus) is likeable and displays good comic timing. Michele LaRue (Amanda) delivers a stock comic performance. Author Kathleen Clark intends Amanda to be a charming and loveably feisty lady who rescues Gus from his stupor. From my seat on the aisle, it is difficult to conceive of an Amanda who would not turn male audiences off as her behavior becomes increasingly obnoxious and selfish over the course of the second act.
Throughout that second act during Sunday's matinee, there was a steady flow of laughter from the majority female, largely senior citizen audience.
Southern Comforts continues performances (Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. / Sun. 2 p.m.) through December 14, 2008 at the Bickford Theatre (in the Morris Museum), 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office:973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org
Southern Comforts by Kathleen Clark; directed by Eric Hafen