By Vicki Paris Goodman
Sappy? A little. Predictable? To a great extent. Simplistic? That, too.
All of the above describe Southern Comforts, a play depicting the romance between two 70-somethings who steal our hearts as well each other’s. It just goes to show that an uncomplicated, even conventional, love story can still win over an audience.
Playwright Kathleen Clark asks far more of the play’s two actors than she asks of its audience. We get to sit back and enjoy a play that doesn’t require much thought or emotional discomfort. On the other hand, actress Michael Learned (yes, of Waltons fame) and fellow veteran actor Granville Van Dusen wield a deceptively tricky script.
With such a sparsely populated cast, straightforward dialogue, and no distractions, timing and expression receive all of our attention. The seasoned duo of Learned and Van Dusen never miss a beat and don’t disappoint. As such, director Jules Aaron may have had an easier task with this production than most others.
In Southern Comforts, Tennessee widow Amanda (Learned) is visiting her married daughter and grandchildren in a New Jersey town. She calls on Gus (Van Dusen), himself a widower, while seeking donations for the local church. That’s the simple truth of the plot. See what I mean?
At Gus’s place, one comment leads to another, which leads to a conversation, which leads to the two finding out they both love baseball, and it goes on from there.
Once committed to a relationship, Amanda and Gus, who are both set in their ways (nothing unusual here), squabble over everything from household clutter to whether each should be buried next to the deceased spouse or each other. All the while, personality clashes and past marital disappointments muddy the waters. But it’s all real, even universally so. And that is why this down-to-earth, unsurprising, even unsophisticated play succeeds so well. We can all see ourselves, or someone we know, in these characters. And Learned and Van Dusen, through their masterful and easy performances, merely bring it all home.
Oh, one could pick over the rather abrupt change in tone during the second act. One might even object to the fact that Amanda is quite a bit more likable than Gus, and wonder what she sees in him. But that would make light of the surprising degree to which the play holds our attention start to finish.
Southern Comforts is honest and good-natured– an immensely satisfying evening of theater.
Southern Comforts continues at International City Theatre through April 10. Tickets are $44 for Friday and Saturday evening performances and for Sunday matinees; tickets are $37 for Thursday evening performances. Evening performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees are at 2pm. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd. Call (562) 436-4610 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at InternationalCityTheatre.org.