By Brian Friel
Directed by Scott Nolte
Taproot Theatre
204 N. 85th St. Seattle, WA 98103 / (206) 781-9707

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Brian Friel is a playwright with a powerful sense of how longing can unite people on a profound, almost mystic level. In "Wonderful Tennessee" we join three vacationing couples on a rather desolate island off the Irish coast, within sight but not reach of another island that they believe might be as enchanted as their own lives are not. They are waiting for a boat that may or may not come to take them to that distant island, and over the course of one long night, they are exposed to one another's beliefs and lack of beliefs, their common needs for hope and mystery and meaning, and a sense of adequacy to their lives. Rather like J.M. Synge, Friel shows how life's elements and weathers can lead to hazardous exposures, more psychological than physical.

Director Scott Nolte clearly brings his own deep understanding of both the night tides of desire and the rocky shoals of choices already made. The cast achieves a solid ensemble, and if the production doesn't quite mine all the potential of the script, we do meet distinct individuals, see and believe their connection to one another, and discover the importance of this particular night. It's one of those times when we can decisively mark our progress through life, how far we've come, how far we are likely to go. It's a lovely, earnest, decidedly intimate play about a small moment, but a small moment in which whole lives are measured.

The cast is well-balanced, and that's particularly important because of the way in which each of them adds a unique voice to the playwright's melodic counterpoint. Bill Johns plays a man who has actually taken out an option, put down money, on his dream, and recognizes by the end of the play that it will remain beyond his reach. Mark Sparks adds abundant vitality and an ironic engagement at odds with his reluctance to accept anything beyond the rational. Edd Key has a charming, gregarious personality. He's a wisely amused older man whose music illustrates a life full of vibrant song. While he's very likeable, what seems lacking in the role is a powerful enough sense of his own fear of loss in the imminent arrival of his own death, his mortal silence. I think for all of these characters there needs to be a rather stronger implication of the depth of unspoken fears, of unfulfilled dreams and personal failures. It's there, but it just isn't deep enough to give the play's poetry the resonance it implies.

Among the women, Pam Nolte is endearing as a slightly awkward and reticent woman always sipping at life's punchbowl, but savoring each small taste nonetheless. Nikki Whitfield's sensibility and grace creates a woman more connected to herself and her place in the world than were the others, but no more at ease because of it.

The standout performance, however, is Lisa Peretti as the unstable, volatile Berna. Never feeling comfortable being anywhere, she is the most obvious in her effort to simply hold on, and her emotional meltdown late in the play is searing and fearsome and deeply pitiable. Her leap of faith, in a rather unsuccessful gimmick at the end of act one, is important because she does, after all, act while the others only discuss possibility. Most importantly, her role has all the vulnerability, all the fragile and flawed humanity that we see to lesser degrees in the others. Where I felt the play fell short was in not achieving that deeper level of self-exposure for the others. There should be real terror in the fear that one has blown it in life, that the most deeply dreamed things may never happen, that the measure of attainment may only be a measure of loss. It's suggested in the others, but only in Ms. Peretti was it palpable and of a dimension adequate to the drama. The others played a bit too much on the surface, and the surface was a bit too complete, the action too often just the action, just animation, and not a desperate artifice over deeper, carefully hidden things.

In the end, though, I think this ambitious production of a difficult, subtle work was more than successful. It's talky, but many dramatic things happen in the right talk between the right people at the right time. That all of these people are so different in the morning than they were the day before is the only action of this play that really matters.

There is a profound sadness that runs throughout Irish literature, and Irish history, and "Wonderful Tennessee" taps into that with a sure, clear voice. The title is disorienting, and not especially resonant, referring only to a song about a place where they've never been, and have idealized. But the idea that there is some place where we could somehow go, and where all things would be possible, is as universal as our ability to dream, to stand on some familiar shore, gazing out to an unfamiliar horizon, and what feels like our true place out there.

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