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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Saturn Returns and Little Women

Also see Tim's reviews of Hell and The Importance of Being Earnest

Saturn Returns
Amanda Schoonover, David Raphaely and Harry Philibosian
Photo: Paola Nogueras
It's easy to relate to the central character of Noah Haidle's play Saturn Returns, an elderly man who grieves over what's gone wrong in his life. At its finest, Haidle's play is a touching portrait of a life filled with misgivings and missed connections. But the play falters a bit as it struggles to flesh out its concept. And director Brenna Geffers' production for Theatre Exile is uneven, with performances that vary from indelible to indifferent.

Saturn Returns tells the story of Gustin, a grumpy, wisecracking retired doctor. Gustin's wife died in childbirth 60 years ago, and his daughter died in an accident 30 years ago. Now Gustin is 88 years old and, even though he is filled with loneliness and regret, he refuses to leave his house and move to a nursing facility because "there are echoes" of his wife and daughter in the house. As long as he is in the house, though, he continues to relive the past in his mind—and we see the 28-year-old Gustin interacting with his wife, as well as the 58-year-old Gustin doing the same with his daughter.

Much of Saturn Returns is impressive. Haidle's dialogue at its best is lovely and poetic, and there are some sweet comic moments sprinkled throughout the script. There are some nicely understated themes and images, too. And the final scene, a confrontation between the three different ages of this man, is undeniably affecting and effective.

But there's a whiff of contrivance throughout the play, as evidenced by its central concept. The title refers to the belief among astrologers that major, life-changing events will happen every thirty years, when Saturn returns to the same place in the cosmos it was in when you were born. The problem here is that it seems as if Haidle came across that idea first, then manipulated the events of the play to fit that preordained structure, rather than have the drama develop from the characters' feelings and motivations. The flashbacks are well structured, but they don't really flesh out the characters much; we learn almost all we need to know about the characters early on. Saturn Returns is never boring, but most of the plot developments don't so much reveal character as reinforce what we already know.

Amanda Schoonover plays the three women in Gustin's life: his wife, his daughter, and a nurse assigned to care for him in his old age. Schoonover (who has to do a series of quick costume changes to make the transitions) creates three distinct personalities and makes each of them emotionally accessible. That's not true of all the men; only Harry Philibosian, who plays the 88-year-old Gustin with a twinkle in his eye, makes his character someone you'd want to spend a lot of time with. The twinkle and the openness are missing from Joe Canuso (who plays Gustin at 58) and David Raphaely (28); they seem sour and remote, and Gustin's story becomes harder to care about the longer they're onstage.

Saturn Returns packs a lot into 75 minutes. Geffers' production never drags, and has much to recommend it. But it's an odd mixture of insightful observations and manufactured whimsy.

Saturn Returns runs through May 22, 2011, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $18-$40, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at www.theatreexile.org.

Little Women
Jennie Eisenhower
Photo: Jane Clearfield
At Bristol Riverside Theatre, this spring's musical attraction is Little Women, an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel which had a Broadway run in 2005. BRT's production is blessed by a terrific cast, sensitive direction, and a very pleasing design. But it's hamstrung by a forgettable score and a book that doesn't do its story justice.

Allan Knee's book does have its strengths; for instance, it adds a flashback structure that helps to propel the story of the four plucky March sisters and their lives and loves in Civil War-era Massachusetts. And Knee adds some gentle humor which humanizes the characters. But Alcott's novel covers a lot of ground, and the script rushes through it at a breakneck pace. One scene combines three major episodes from the novel (a character's illness, another character's trip to Europe, and the delivery of a piano) into just a few minutes. And the story's most tragic and memorable scene (the death of a major character) is skipped completely, then referred to in the past tense. Alcott's beloved characters deserve better.

Jason Howland's music is mostly flavorless modern pop, with an emphasis on bombastic ballads. He has written some pretty melodies, but most of them lack any spark that might make them special. And Mindi Dickstein's lyrics are filled with bland sentiment (as evident in song titles like "Some Things Are Meant to Be," "Take a Chance On Me" and "How I Am"). She also has an unfortunate propensity for imperfect rhymes and mis-stressed syllables.

Fortunately, BRT's production is redeemed by a strong cast. Leading the way is Jennie Eisenhower, who brings infectious energy and glee to the role of Jo March, the tomboy who'd rather box a boy than dance with him. Jo's three sisters get plenty of time in the spotlight too, and they get charismatic portrayals from Elisa Matthews (as Meg), Kim Carson (Beth) and Kara Dombrowski (Amy). All four have rich, gorgeous voices, as does Leslie Becker who plays their sympathetic mother. Michael Sharon and Stephen Schellhardt make good impressions as Jo's suitors, although Schellhardt seems too old for his role. Susan D. Atkinson's direction emphasizes the cast's chemistry; the Marches really do feel like a family here.

The attractive set design by Roman Tatarowicz employs woodwork to create a unified style. And Millie Hiibel's costumes are striking, especially in a series of dresses for Eisenhower with autumnal colors that evoke the story's New England setting.

Little Women is far from terrible. It's got a sweet tone, and the cast makes it enjoyable. But because of inadequacies in its score and book, it doesn't engage the ear and the heart the way it should. It never hits the heights that great musicals—and great adaptations of Little Women—are capable of.

Little Women runs through May 22, 2011, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices start at $36, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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