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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Failure: A Love Story and Pride and Prejudice

Also see Tim's review of Lend Me a Tenor


Tabitha Allen and Mary Beth Shrader
Photo by Johanna Austin
Despite its downbeat and misleading title, Failure: A Love Story is a lovely and uplifting saga of family bonds that endure beyond tragedy and death. Azuka Theatre's exquisite production presents the story with some fanciful and theatrical flourishes, but the show is grounded by a tragic reality—an acceptance of fate and a determination to carry on no matter the cost.

Failure is the story of the three Fail sisters, daughters of hard-working European immigrants who establish a clockworks in early twentieth century Chicago. The eldest daughter is born in 1900 and, within thirty years, as we are repeatedly told in onstage narration, all three sisters and their parents will be dead. But, while timekeeping provides their livelihood, time seems fluid for the Fails—even as a collection of vintage clocks appears on the wall behind them (part of Lindsey Mayer's finely detailed set design). Gertrude (Isa St. Clair) is a practical businesswoman, Jenny June (Tabitha Allen) is a sprightly athlete, and Nelly (Mary Beth Shrader) is an exuberant jazz baby. The sisters acquire a younger brother, John (Brendan Dalton), a foundling who finds solace from his loneliness in a diverse collection of animals. And the girls acquire an admirer, Mortimer Mortimer (Kevin Meehan), who falls in love with each of the beauties in turn (and, really, who can blame him?). Noble and determined, Mortimer faces loss after loss but draws strength from each setback.

Dawkins' script is full of great detail and clever wordplay (although there are far too many corny clock puns). The play briefly falters toward the end when Mortimer retreats into his memories of the three sisters; he relives the past in a sequence that seems too similar to the final act of Our Town. But Failure is redeemed by its vivid and eccentric characters and its great storytelling; it's a moving play that keeps the viewer involved long after the resolution is revealed.

While each of the performances in Failure is excellent, it's the way director Allison Heishman's cast interacts that makes the production special. Every time one sister takes the spotlight, her siblings sit at the rear of the stage, listening intently, hanging on every word. It's a level of commitment that appears in every detail of Azuka's production, from Amanda Sharp's stylish costumes to the way Dalton spends long stretches impersonating a clock by pivoting an umbrella in front of himself like a second hand.

Failure? More like a triumph.

Failure: A Love Story runs through May 26, 2013, and is presented by Azuka Theatre at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $18-$27 and are available by calling the box office at (215) 563-1100, or online at www.AzukaTheatre.org.



Joel Guerrero and Susan Wefel
Photo courtesy Hedgerow Theatre
Pride and Prejudice is another story about sisters—in this case, the five Bennet sisters, living in the English countryside a century before the Fail sisters were born. Jon Jory's stage adaptation of Jane Austen's famous tale of manners, courtship and propriety does a good job of condensing the story into a little over two hours, retaining a surprising amount of the plot (and a great deal of Austen's dialogue). While director Jared Reed's production lacks the grace and flair of Failure, it does tell the still-charming story in an entertaining way.

Rebecca Cureton radiates intelligence and spunk as the feisty Elizabeth Bennet (though Cureton's exaggerated diction makes her sound like Eliza Doolittle at the Ascot racetrack). Carl N. Smith is solemn and dignified as Elizabeth's taciturn suitor Mr. Darcy, while Zoran Kovcic and Susan Wefel do delightful comic turns as Elizabeth's parents. The remaining five actors juggle over a dozen supporting roles—for instance, Andrew Parcell plays the competing suitors Mr. Bingley and Mr. Wickham. (I've always gotten those two confused anyway.) All do fine, and Reed keeps the story moving swiftly and lucidly.

But while Cathie Miglionico's period-style costumes are attractive, Kovcic's scenic design falls short. There's a plain, wraparound platform and six decrepit-looking stools, and there's no backdrop—the whole show is played out against the weathered stone wall of the 1840s grist mill that serves as Hedgerow's home. You'll never believe you're in a fancy mansion for an instant. Pride and Prejudice doesn't need to be done on a grand scale, but it should feel grand, and Hedgerow's version never does.

“This is an evening of wonders, indeed!” cries Mr. Bennet near the play's end. Well, not quite. But it's an evening that tells a great story pretty well. And, despite some flaws in the execution, it's that story—and the care with which it's told—that you'll remember.

Pride and Prejudice runs through June 16, 2013, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket are $25-$32, with discounts for seniors and students, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211 or online at www.HedgerowTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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