Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Canadian playwright Michele Riml's Henry and Alice: Into the Wild, now having its U.S. premiere at Park Square Theatre, is a very sweet, very funny, and very insightful look at the turmoil that takes place for Henry and his wife Alice after Henry loses his job of 29 years. Thanks to Henry's past success as the family breadwinner, Alice had been able to take the role of full-time home maker and mom to their three children. The wild they head into refers to a rustic campsite, a cut-rate alternative to their annual vacation at a cabin with creature comforts. That this is unchartered territory for Alice is evident by her apparela stylish safari skirt and jacket set, like something picked up at Banana Republic, and the bags from Pottery Barn she totes containing throw pillows, an area rug, and a table runner to make their campsite homier. Not leaving anything to chance nor fully trusting Henry's acumen in the great outdoors, she also brings a copy of "Camping for Dummies," much to Henry's chagrin.
Riml makes good use of the numerous opportunities for witty banter between the two spouses, as well as physical comedy, with such easy targets as setting up a tent, starting a fire, the prospect of bears roaming the campground, and crawling in and out of snug-fitting sleeping bags. To add to the mix, Alice's free-wheeling younger sister Diana shows up, uninvited, on motorcycle, clad in leather, sporting a new tattoo and brash new hair color. Diana thought the idea of her sister and brother-in-law camping was so hilarious, she had to see for herself. Henry's hoped for tranquility is further marred by a large RV in the next campsite, with a sound system blaring loud music. Having lost control of his work life, Henry can barely stand to lose control of the hoped-for reprieve from his pained existence.
Of course, the wild into which Henry and Alice enter is not simply the campground, but the wilderness of possibilities that their situation opens up. Some of these may be fabulous opportunities, but in his current state, all Henry can imagine is that success, as he has known it, is over. When Alice says "You'll get another job, a better job," Henry, with disdain in his voice, replies "There is no better job! I'm 52 years old. No one will pay me what I was earning." Knowing the challenges facing over-50 job seekers, Henry may be right, at least in the short run. He has not yet considered the full range of how he might change his life as he, understandably, is in shock over the loss of the life he has known. Henry feels that their 15 year old son Jason thinks of him only as ATM Dad. While this is irksome in itself, if Henry can no longer dispense twenty dollar bills to his son, what can he do?
Alice has not held a job since starting a family, over twenty years ago. She has, however, worked, which she very clearly expresses, and is resentful at the suggestion that she has had a free ride till now. At the same time, she knows that she will have to enter the workforce and is in a panic over what kind of prospects she may have. That she harbors resentment at Henry for putting her in this predicament is revealed by her insistence on calling his situation "early retirement" instead of being able to acknowledge that he was let go.
Henry and Alice were introduced to Park Square theatergoers in 2014, with a staging of Riml's earlier play, Sexy Laundry. In that play, the couple go head to head over Alice's efforts to enliven their love life, which after years of marriage, had lost its luster. Riml references those efforts with Alice's continued prodding the somewhat priggish Henry to loosen up. John Middleton returns in the current play as Henry, and he has the mix of confidence regarding the things he is supposed to be good at (e.g., camping) and nervous, self-consciousness when it comes to romance. Henry is never going to be a laid back, easygoing dude, but Middleton does allow us to see Henry allow himself to cast off some of his anxiety and move closer to see Alice as his partner moving forward. Carolyn Pool excels in comedy roles. She delivers Alice's mix of wit, sarcasm, cluelessness and worry, finding the rich humor but also the genuine human core of a person who suddenly has lost her footing and is treading water as she searches for new solid ground. As Diana, Melanie Wehrmacher creates a believable woman-child, proud of living for the moment without acknowledging the cost of her choicesand maturing, if just a bit, in the course of the play.
Kit Mayer has designed a beautiful campsite set that makes good use of the Boss Thrust Stage. Michael P. Kittle's lighting uses the natural flow from day to night and back to day to alter the atmosphere of different scenes, and cleverly provides lighting to allow us to see inside Henry and Alice's tent as they fumble with their sleeping bags. Jacob M. Davis furnishes the offstage sounds that are essential parts of the story: the call of birds, the rustle of leaves in the wood (a bear, perhaps?), the splash of a leap from a rope swing, and the rumble of the RV, along with its blasting music.
The entire package is directed by Mary M. Finnerty with a steady hand that maintains an edge of tension between the two distraught spouses, acknowledging that this is a real tipping point in their marriage, while never allowing us to doubt the roots of love and affection between them. Finnerty also allows the play's abundant, sometimes hilarious, humor to speak for itself, providing genuine entertainment without overtaking the serious side of the narrative.
Henry and Alice: Into the Wild can be enjoyed by anyone, but will have special resonance for anyone who has been through the agonies of job loss, especially late-career job loss. The play is extremely funny but the characters are authentic, not comic cut-outs, and their conversations have the ring of truth. In a rich fall theater season, this is one more to put on your "try to see it" list.
Henry and Alice: Into the Wildcontinues through October 22, 2017, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $25.00 - $60.00. Age 30 and under, $21.00 for standard seats; seniors (AGE 62+): $5.00 discount; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 one hour before performance, if available cash only. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Michele Riml; Director: Mary M. Finnerty; Scenic Design: Kit Mayer; Costume Design: Rebecca Karstad; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Meagan Kedrowski; Assistant Director: Libby Wasylik; Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman; Assistant Stage Manager: Kyla Moloney.
Cast: John Middleton (Henry), Carolyn Pool (Alice), Melanie Wehrmacher (Diana).