And what are the stakes? In this retirement facility, Abby Binder (Sara Morsey) has a full run of a sweet room. She drives off any potential roommates with her caustic personality, until Marilyn Dunne (Nell Page) arrives. Unflappable and overtly optimistic, Marilyn foils every attempt by Abby to fluster her. You see, the acid of Abby reminds Marilyn fondly of her deceased husband. She loves tending to and diffusing the abuse. Until one night at a very peculiar Halloween haunted house event, Marilyn notices Abby doesn't scare easily. And she really wants Abby's bed by the window. Marilyn really wants Abby to probably die, or at least to ship out to a room recently made available through another resident's timely end. Hence, the bargain: If Marilyn scares Abby, she gets the view. If Abby manages to piss off the eternally cheery Marilyn, she's out. Let the competition begin, and boy does it get ugly fast.
If this feels like a TV-show setup, that's largely how it plays. Thoughts of the Odd Couple sprinkled with Golden Girls cannot be avoided. But there are two things which make this play well worth the investment of time and money: 1. Sara Morsey and Nell Page are pitch perfect and 2. The laughs come easily and rapidly. The beauty of Sara and Nell in these roles is that they treat these characters with genuine respect. They go far deeper than the source material requires. There is a palpable chemistry that compels empathy from the audience, even if some of the heart strings feel tugged on by the rote sentimentalism of the writing. As is often the case, the HIPP company seems to excel at bringing average material into superior articulation, both by the talent of her actors and the strong (if occasionally loopy) directorial choices.
Directed by V Craig Heidenreich (you should remember his soaring performance in dual roles in the HIPP's Hamlet), one can still feel the Caldwellian sense of style lurking beneath the surface, especially in the set changes and the pivotal scene in the Haunted House. The ghouls in the latter are so psychologically demanding and terrifying, they skirt the safe parameters of this "dramedy" and into nightmare - a tonal mismatch that, for this viewer, that did not serve the play well. We want to be taken in by the story of the women and what the terror provides as motivation, not by the terror itself. I get that Abby needs to show her fearlessness in the face of terror. But after the end of the play, I soon forgot about the plight of the women and was left with the residual nightmare clowns to forever haunt my dreams.
I also was flummoxed by the choice (I insist/hope it was deliberate) not to include any real food in the flimsy plastic plates and dishes served to the residents. I don't want to spoil the ending, but there is a pivotal psychological connection to the taste of food and maybe this was a deliberate choice. But when I see actors pretending to eat invisible food... Maybe it's just me, but if you've ever been to a performance where an actor's earring falls off (the actor eventually figures out a way to recover the earring or maybe a stage-hand grabs it during a blackout) the play for a moment suddenly becomes about the earring and what's going to happen to it. I could not stop thinking about why they chose to mime the food, and only by the end of the play did I discover a possible justification for it. But by then, I think I'm really working too hard.
Other choices were much easier on the imagination - the brilliant use of the Facility set to represent the Spook-house and the interior of an airplane, for example. The design of set and lighting easily allowed me to suspend my disbelief and go right up in the air with our characters, even as absurd as the premise is. Miming food...I don't know. Maybe it's just me.
A further oddity: during the scene changes, a crew member adjusts set pieces, chairs, remove props, and so on. The HIPP is often brilliantly Brechtian (showing the mechanics of a production) in its design of reminding/acknowledging that yes, this is a play. Set changes are done in full view with dim lighting and stylized into the performance. Actors are seen leaving the stage before a blackout, and so on. But for whatever reason, the stage-hand would sometimes move a chair a mere half-inch, eyeing it carefully, moving it an inch back into the original position--almost as parody of the HIPP's own set-changing devices (bringing strong laughs from the audience, by the way). Sometimes the stage-hand would make a dramatic and wacky presentation out of placing a simple prop. This was very funny and interesting, so much so that several times the audience broke out into spontaneous applause. So the stagehand by this point becomes a kind of supporting actor in the play. On the one hand, I was delighted by it. On the other, this performance served absolutely no function to support or further the story, and so it irked me. I didn't get the choice here. Took me out of the flow, sent the play teetering on being reduced to an off-kilter Saturday Night Live sketch, albeit an ultimately rewarding one. Maybe it's in the script that way, but I doubt it.
That said, I'd watch Sara and Nell read the phone book. They make so much meat out of the potatoes in this show that the audience can't help but to drawn into the lives of these women, their plight, bet, audacity, family, discoveries, and ultimate humanistic common bond which drives deeper than even the worst of their competitive treachery. Though the twists and turns in this show may be predictable, our actors still manage to catch us by surprise.
The supportive cast are all strong, especially a standout performance by Logan Wolfe who manages to be broadly comic and yet sublimely endearing all at the same time as Scotty, the nurse practitioner. Wolfe has been one of the most interesting actors to watch develop at the HIPP in his many stage roles. His sense of both comic and dramatic timing is impeccable. I detect Charlie Chaplin. Bryan Mercer as Benjamin, Abby's estranged and downtrodden son, is heartbreaking and authentic. Laura Shatkus and Niall McGinty are almost equally diabolical as the lead characters, portraying Marilyn's daughter Colleen and son-in-law, Deryk. Shatkus plays the relish with which Colleen assists her mother with scene-chewing glee. Niall plays well the hesitance of Derek to go along. But of course he does so anyway because...well, he's Colleen's husband. And Colleen, being Marilyn's daughter, has certainly learned to enjoy the pleasures of having her way.
The lighting (Robert P. Robins), sound design (Amanda Yanes), costumes (Lorelei Esser) and set design (Timothy J. Dygert) all lend great support to the sense of time and place without drawing undue attention to themselves--an art in itself. Ripcord at the HIPP ultimately succeeds, weaveing the magic, earning its laughs and empathy in equal measure. The strong acting elevates the source material. The direction is never less than interesting and makes great use of the limitations of the small thrust stage and the power of intimate theatre to move an audience. But without a doubt, it is Sara Morsey and Nell Page that ultimately give Ripcord its healthy beating heart.
-- Tom Miller
READ: Noel Leroux's Review at Gainesville Downtown:
READ: Ron Cunningham's Review in the Gainesville Sun: