Playwright Joan Ackermann makes sense out of the commonplace. In last summer's biggest local hit, Stanton's Garage, she wove the eccentricities of unremarkable men and women into a thoroughly involving slice of life. Zara Spook and Other Lures, also a journey of personal discovery, is a delightful fanfare for the common woman. And the vivacious Actors Ensemble production is so well-cast that Ackermann's tendency to lapse into sentimentality is kept in check. The action remains honest, and Ackermann's essential humanity shines through.
As the story opens, Evelyn is about to embark on a cross-country car trip to participate in a women's fishing tournament--the Bass 'N Gal Classic. Her live-in love, Talmadge, clucks like an old mother hen over her. He just can't seem to let her go, so he leaps in the car as she pulls out of the driveway and insists on driving her from West Virginia to New Mexico in his pajamas. Evelyn's best friend, Teale, and Romona, the reigning Bass 'N Gal champion, come along for the ride.
As it turns out, our heroines aren't alone on the highway. In a truck heading west only a few miles away, Romona's slightly deranged ex-husband, Mel, escorts a runaway wealthy matron looking for adventure. But Mel is still so madly in love with Romona that he pelts Talmadge with birdshot when he sees Romona in his car and fires on Romona with a shotgun as she camps out with her friends.
All this might be the stuff of tragedy for the characters, but Ackermann laughs at them all. Mel and Talmadge's screwy attempts to hang on to their women are ludicrous. So Ackermann lets Talmadge see Evelyn in the new light of a modest success, and she rescues Mel from madness through the sympathetic observations of Talmadge, who actually tells Mel that, shotgun or not, he's a "sensitive" man. It's a wonderful scene--a gentle parody of the new-age self-help movement that's funny, strange and oddly convincing.
Ackermann is best when she lets the women be themselves--engaging in female bonding, fishing as if their lives depended on it or facing a medical emergency out in the woods. She writes men well, too, giving them space to be complex, loving, even vulnerable, without stripping them of their masculinity. But she gets into trouble when she philosophizes about life. A long speech in which Evelyn describes finding herself is the single most problematic scene in the play. We already know who she is and how she got there--we don't need her to tell us.
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Still, Nancy Ladwig gives a finely tuned performance as Evelyn. She's just a bit rough at the edges and always engaging. Linda Davis-Button as the asthmatic Teale and Carol Anne Lopez as the confused lady on the run make a nice comic pair, while Scott Neuhard is a fine actor who makes Talmadge ultimately sympathetic.
But it's Verl John Hite as crazy Mel and Kelly Jo Little as Romona who give the play its texture and truth. Hite has few lines, instead using body language to convey a great deal of information. This strong, silent type has layers and layers of tenderness, and we come to realize that he's misunderstood. Meanwhile, Little makes the talkative Romona the most vital presence on stage. Romona's opinions are so screwy and her personality so bold that only an actress of Little's distinction could make her believable.
Ackermann has a knack for movie-like dialogue, yet her plays are anything but mainstream. Her stories lean ever so slightly off-center as she tries to make sense of male-female relationships. And because her characters' needs outstrip their abilities, their journeys of self-discovery can also be means of discovering each other. Evelyn and Talmadge may not be brain surgeons, but when they realize their modest ambitions, they paint a big picture.
Zara Spook and Other Lures, through March 29 at the Guild Theatre, 4840 Sterling Drive, Boulder, 449-3296.