Every year, Senior Housing Options, which provides safe, caring housing for indigent older and disabled people in several Colorado locations, mounts a theater production at Denver’s Barth Hotel as a fundraiser. This year, the play is Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance, and the money will go toward safety equipment and upgrading technology to meet regulations at SHO facilities including the Barth. On the night I attended, the audience was welcomed by Ron Jennings, one of the residents. Just before the play began, he came forward, smiling. “I used to be homeless,” he said. “I needed them so bad. I needed you. You welcomed us into your hearts, and God love you as I love you.”
Supporting SHO’s good work is an excellent reason to see the play. A second reason is the warm intimacy of the Victorian-era Barth itself, a setting that adds a poignant, faded elegance to the action, along with a wistful sense of time passing that happens to be profoundly appropriate to The Last Romance.
But the primary reason is the quality of this production. Not so much the script, which is slight, but the acting and Christy Montour-Larson’s direction. Ralph Bellini (Jim Hunt), a working stiff who once wanted to be an opera singer, departs from the well-worn route of his usual walk one afternoon and enters a dog park where Carol Reynolds (Billie McBride) is allowing her chihuahua, Peaches, to roam. Instantly, he’s intrigued. Carol is a retired executive secretary, impeccably dressed, mildly prim, and not at all interested in either Ralph or opera. He cajoles, issues jovial insults (“I’m a kidder”) and persists. A lot of the early action consists of the two of them sitting side by side on a bench, verbally fencing and periodically checking on Peaches.
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A complication is Ralph’s sister, Rose (a vital and often touching Anne Oberbroeckling), who still hopes for the return of the husband who left her 22 years earlier. A rigid Catholic, she refuses to divorce him. Lonely and desperate to hold on to her brother, she sallies into the park every once in a while to insist it’s time for him to come home for supper and, as a kind of despairing inducement, announce the evening’s menu — usually veal scallopini.
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With his passionate love of opera, Ralph, who’s very aware of the passing of time and the narrowing of his horizons, slowly coaxes the rigid Carol into a joyful awakening. He tells her that he once auditioned for the Met and, miraculously, received a callback — but his family concealed the callback from him and he only learned of it too late. “Everything in life is so small,” he tells her. “You get up, you have your day, you go to bed — small. But everything in opera — someone walks across the stage, they sing an aria! Someone opens a door — another aria! Big emotions, big people, big, big, big.” After a while, things get complicated for Ralph and Carol, even if the developments aren’t entirely credible or exactly big. A letter from her husband roils Rose’s equanimity. It turns out that Ralph is holding back a potentially relationship-destroying secret, and we find out the same is true of Carol.
If the action is somewhat static, the dialogue is humorous and the characters — even poor Rose — very appealing. Playwright DiPietro also cunningly employs that irresistible device: music. Ralph’s younger self is present, played by dark-eyed Jeffrey Parker, sometimes walking quietly across the stage, sometimes facing Ralph, sometimes singing. When Ralph describes his Met audition, Parker gives us Silvio’s aria from I Pagliacci, and though there are times during the evening when his voice isn’t quite up to the fiendish demands of the opera scores, he renders this piece beautifully.
Best of all are the performances of the two leads: Hunt’s gallant playfulness as Ralph and the quietly contained elegance of McBride’s Carol — along with the sheer unexpected exuberance once she finally decides to bring music and new love into her life. The silent player in this gentle romance of loss and redemption is time itself: Ralph is 80 years old and Carol 79. You can sense time stirring as McBride considers the challenge of a possible new life or Hunt contemplates the possibility of losing her — and particularly as he searches the features of a buoyant young singer for a trace of his own essential self.
The Last Romance, presented by Senior Housing Options through August 20, with performances every Thursday, Friday and Saturday (as well as industry night on August 8) at the Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street. For tickets, go to seniorhousingoptions.org or call 303-595-4464, ext. 14.