Paragon's Love Song makes for a lovely evening
Paragon Theatre's production of Love Song represents the best kind of marriage between a script and a theater company: The play provides fascinating, quirky roles that make actors look good, and where it has flaws, the production counters them.
This is the story of Beane, a sad, lonely, crazy man living a marginal life in a grubby apartment, obsessed with the idea that the walls and ceiling are closing in on him; his sister, Joan, a successful businesswoman, and her husband, Harry; and Molly, a thief who breaks into Beane's apartment, threatens him, gabbles about architects and minimalism, violence and arson, and insists that even in the homes with the most elegantly restrained decor, there's always a closet somewhere full of sentimentality — yearbooks, letters, old toys. After meeting Molly, Beane is transformed. He talks at warp speed; he's entranced by such everyday realities as sandwiches and sidewalks. It's not that he's cured of his problems; rather, this seems another phase of his madness. Or perhaps it's sanity after all, a kind of brilliant, glittering hyper-sanity. Multimedia artist Romare Bearden once said that the artist should be a whale, "swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything ...," and in the throes of his new love for Molly, Beane seems inclined to consume the entire world. He wants to eat a horse or a live dog, rip the breast from a pigeon. "I am ravishing," he proclaims. These enthusiasms are infectious, and they get to Harry, who admits that he smelled cantaloupe when he first met Joan and can still get excited passing a fruit stand. Pretty soon Joan and Harry are looking at each other with new interest and playing silly-sweet couple games.
But the play is also about childish games, imaginary friends and how, if you pretend hard enough, the pretense might just become real. Because, of course, Molly is a figment of Beane's imagination, and when he realizes this, his happiness, always a brittle entity, collapses like a soufflé that's had a spoon thrust into it.
Despite the genuine brilliance and humor of much of the dialogue (Harry's attempts to get Beane's response to a Cosmo-style quiz have to be seen), the script occasionally veers dangerously close to cutesiness, as in the scene in which Harry and Joan play hooky from work (though it contains wonderful moments), and the over-long, heat-filled love poem that Beane and Molly breathe almost into each other's mouths. But that's where the perfect marriage of play and production comes in. Jarrad Holbrook's direction is unsentimental, sensitive to playwright John Kolvenbach's tango between darkness and light, love and death, and all the shadows between.
And you'll rarely see performances as perfect as those delivered by his actors, who give the text every ounce of required emotion while still exercising subtlety and restraint. Because Emily Paton Davies makes Joan a little warm even at the start, when she's talking about firing a weepy intern for misfiling a folder, we're not disconcerted when she morphs into a flirtatious wife and a profoundly devoted sister. Scott McLean gives Harry just the right edge, and his comic timing is wonderful. Brian Landis Folkins as Beane and Barbra Andrews as Molly know how to go full out, but they also imbue quietly whispering moments with such intensity that you lean forward to catch every syllable.
The tech is just as good. Sometimes sets, costumes, lighting and sound distract from a production, calling attention to themselves instead of the action, but here they not only support the text, they add meaning. David Lafont has created an almost undifferentiated set — part realistic, part suggestive — to represent both Beane's apartment and Joan and Harry's middle-class living room. Empty metal frames; a bare, hanging, rocking light; an armchair; squares that change color from warm amber to bleak gray-green with changes in Jen Orf's lighting — these create mood and delineate space. And while some productions of Love Song are accompanied by goopy love songs, this one makes use of intriguing, not-quite-placeable sounds. Birds waking? Muttering voices?
Ultimately, Love Song tells a familiar story about the redemptive power of love — but these are not ordinary people, nor will their lives ever be entirely sunny. Even at his happiest, poor Beane is dangerously close to the edge, and Joan's job of protecting him will never be over. Yet by the end, playwright and actors have created a fragile, translucent equilibrium in which we can all rest.
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