All Geared Up

We don't really understand our world. Flailing about in unsuitable relationships, many people really want a perfect blend of community and independence and just can't find it anywhere--except maybe at a place like Stanton's Garage, where life unexpectedly solves its own riddles and strangers help each other through emotional distress. Joan Ackermann's spirited, intelligent comedy has been given terrific slice-of-life verity by the Avenue Theater, which is staging it in an actual mechanic's garage. An exceptional cast and sterling direction by Terry Dodd make this production a stand-out experience--brighter, more honest and more exciting than even the play's world premiere at Louisville's Humana Theatre Festival a few years back.

All the action in Ackermann's story takes place in a rural garage somewhere in deepest Missouri on a hot August day. Ron waits impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can be on his way to crash his ex-wife's wedding. He tries the gumball machine, but it's broken. He tries the candy machine. Same story. So he surreptitiously grabs a hammer, breaks the glass and removes a candy bar. The pleasantly neurotic Ron is getting awfully close to the edge, a point further hammered home when he buys a case of antifreeze as a wedding present.

Many of the laughs in this play revolve around the predictable frustrations of having one's car break down. But at Stanton's Garage, mechanical problems lead to personal epiphanies. For instance, when a doctor's Volvo huffs to a stop before she can join her fiance at a wedding (coincidentally, the same one Ron's attending), she has a chance to see how manipulative and demanding he is. Just when she feels the most despised by her fiance, her would-be stepdaughter, Frannie, comes to the rescue.

In the hands of a lesser cast, this scene might have been too predictable. But in director Dodd's creative scheme, new relationships come as revelations: Between the two of them, the doctor and Frannie raise issues of self-discovery that resonate through the whole story.

This is a play about character, and to Ackermann's credit, none of the characters are too good to be true--or too bad. Most of them are adrift, unable to cope with the world they live in. But for each of them, there is a creative answer to the problem at hand. At one point the doctor says, "A pygmy in the rainforest understands his world." But this accomplished mechanic of the human body can't maneuver well in hers--and she's let herself believe that she can't understand the mechanics of the car upon which she is utterly dependent. The genius auto mechanic, Denny, on the other hand, doesn't understand his own body--he's even convinced himself that he has a brain tumor.

The different types of breakdowns in this play provide opportunities for the characters to find themselves. Unless, of course, they already absolutely understand themselves. The garage's manager, Mary, has a quip for every circumstance and an allegory for every problem. Brash, eccentric and terribly funny, Mary knows who she is and what she wants. And Judy Phelan-Hill is just the woman to play her. In fact, Phelan-Hill's performance is so accomplished that the thought of anyone else playing Mary is rendered downright unthinkable.

But then, all the actors are well-suited to their roles. Tupper Cullum's Ron teeters on the brink of all-out craziness with a sufficient twist of self-knowledge and genuine compassion. Arthur L. Payton plays the mechanic of few words, Silvio, as if he'd worked in a garage all his life. Michael Katt gives Denny just the right patina of country bumpkin, while Glenna Kelley as the doctor breaks down with all the grace of a really bright woman driven too far. And Eric Hansen and Amanda Brodjeski are terrific, adorable teens discovering their mutual attraction.

Staging the show in a real garage has given this local show a decided edge over the Louisville production. The audience is surrounded by realistic detail, but the conventions of the theater never seem out of place or insufficient. And though I didn't think so when I saw the play in Louisville, the Avenue Theater's production has convinced me that Ackermann's vision of the common man is a wise one. She may be optimistic, but she avoids sinking her audience in sentimentality; just when a moment threatens to become too mushy, Ackermann whisks things along with her earthy humor and her super-real take on human idiosyncrasies. Here, self-involvement gives way to concern for the other guy. This garage is special, and if you've got to break down, Stanton's is the place to do it.

Stanton's Garage, through August 24 at the former Storz Garage, 501 East 17th Avenue, 837-0045.

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