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Time of the Seasons

BPF Opens With a Look at Lovers Young and Old

Jane Steffen and Paul Emmons star as high school seniors in In Smoke at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 7/4/2001

Seasons of Love

Jim Cary

This summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival (BPF) officially kicked off with Seasons of Love, the collective title for two one-act plays by Jim Cary. In Smoke is about a couple of high school seniors in the spring of their lives. Good Night is about an elderly couple recalling their early years as they head into the winter of their lives.

The coupling of these two plays about coupling makes for an emotionally rich double bill at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Cary, a BPF veteran, imaginatively enters his subjects' heads. The characters and their problems always remain vivid, and the writing, though marred by patches of overly obvious dialogue, is tight enough to ensure that each play's one-on-one encounters don't degenerate into windy debates. It also helps that the cast, under director Barry Feinstein, really inhabits its characters.

The puppy-love play, In Smoke, is set in a high school art classroom whose only occupants at the moment are two budding artists: a sweet-natured, wheelchair-bound young Leonardo named Leonard (Paul Emmons) and the classmate on whom he has a serious crush, a volatile bundle of nerves named Marty (Jane Steffen).

If their conversation initially seems like standard teen angst--she's nervous about whether she's cut out for college, he dreams that his friendship with her will blossom into romance--Cary is adept at going into these issues and beyond them. There's more psychological depth here than you might expect. Emmons' line readings could use a tad more confidence, but he handsomely captures Leonard's eagerness and niceness. Steffen overdoes the nervous tics, as if she's possessed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, but perhaps this is unavoidable in portraying a drug-addicted young woman on the verge of emotional collapse. Considering that both characters have had drug problems, though, it's implausible that Leonard is so slow to recognize the symptoms of Marty's heroin addiction. It's symptomatic of a production in which the performances are in better shape than the script.

Structurally, Cary breaks up the flow of dialogue by giving Leonard and Marty brief asides that function somewhat as a Shakespearean soliloquy would. These solo speeches tend to underscore obvious points that instead should be handled (and more subtly) via dialogue. Cary also is inconsistent in how frequently he uses the asides: they dominate parts of In Smoke and at other times virtually disappear. Thematically, the playwright doesn't convey a firm enough grasp of visual art, the subject that brings Leonard and Marty together. He needs to provide more detail about their work to enhance credibility.

Good Night also is characterized by a solid premise and acting, and mostly effective writing that could still stand some tweaking. A real-life husband and wife, actors Joseph and Audrey Cimino, bring complete conviction to their portrayals of Tommy and Katherine, a retired couple having a late-night argument about the disappointments in their lives. They never had children; Tommy worked an office job and never fully explored his artistic inclinations; and Katherine, a former teacher who still quotes great literature from memory, laments that Tommy no longer responds to either her intellect or her body. It's the sort of confessional night, complete with raging thunderstorm, that will have you eagerly following the angry exchanges.

Cary doesn't make it easy for you to keep up, though, because his dialogue channels different dramatic influences. Sometimes Tommy and Katherine speak in the laconic, deliberately stilted manner of Beckett characters (indeed, they even talk about Beckett), and sometimes their argument flows in a more naturalistic way. The arbitrary shifts in tone cause problems for the actors.

The shortcomings in these brand-new plays could be easily addressed with a bit of rewriting--and after all, perfecting raw scripts is what a playwrights' festival is all about.

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