Pleasant, Undemanding Southern Comforts
Also see Bob's review of Hound of the Baskervilles
Amanda has driven up from her home in Tennessee to a small Morris County, New Jersey, town to visit with her married daughter and her family. On a Sunday July afternoon, she arrives at Gus's house to leave an envelope for his church donation. Gus is a retired stone mason who likes to stay close to home, and be left alone to perform his household chores and repairs. Amanda is a retired librarian who loves books and likes to go places and do things. What they have in common is that each of them had 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 first act takes us to September. Amanda and Gus have agreed to marry, but are having second thoughts. Gus is worried about Amanda's plan to transport several moving van loads of furniture and books up from Tennessee. Amanda raises the issue of intimacy to which Gus shyly responds that he is "probably" 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."
November finds newlyweds Amanda and Gus uncomfortably at home. Amanda wants to be left alone to work on a book that she is writing on her family's history. Gus is entreating her for help as he struggles with the seasonal installation of 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 his deceased 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 family plot in her family's section at the Celebration Hill cemetery in Tennessee. She angrily stalks out to move back in with her daughter.
Two weeks later, Amanda comes to the house as Gus as he 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 with 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 they are going to take their stone to Celebration Hill.
As directed by Women's Theatre Company Artistic Director Barbara Krajkowski, this mild, gentle comedy makes for a pleasant diversion. Under Krajkowski's astute direction, it is made clear to us from the opening scene that Gus and Amanda are smitten with one another and want to pursue a relationship. Nona Pipes is a pleasant and beguiling Amanda. Her Amanda quickly turns in to Gus' longing for a pleasant relationship.
Robert M. Hefley's Gus immediately picks up on Amanda's good vibes, and his "I want to be alone" mindset is switched off during Southern Comforts first few minutes.
Even the big bump placed in the road by Amanda as a result of Gus's plan to be buried with his late wife grows out of her hurt over the fact that Gus would rather be buried with his widow with whom he had a loveless marriage than with her.
In a 2008 New Jersey production of this play that I reviewed, a maddeningly domineering Amanda and a rather pathetic, "I just want to be left alone" Gus made for a most off-putting dynamic. Add over the top, broad comic performances and the result was a Southern Comforts that was a quite different , far less engaging play than the one that is now under discussion.
I still find the final scene with its inclusion of the carved tombstone in the parlor and Amanda's arbitrary announcement that she and Gus and their tombstone are headed for Celebration Hill annoyingly over the top.
Author Kathleen Clark's comedy Confessions of a Soccer Mom has been widely produced throughout the country.
Her Southern Comforts is a pleasant, easygoing comedy which is securely in the zone of her intended demographic.
Southern Comforts continues performances (Evenings: Friday and Saturday 8 pm/Matinees: Sunday 3 pm) through May 20, 2012, at the Women's Theatre Company at the Parsippany Playhouse, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, N.J.; Box Office: 973-316-3033; online: www.womenstheater.org/
Southern Comforts by Kathleen Clark; directed by Barbara