Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater has chosen to herald the approach of Indian summer with what it calls a bit of romance. “Southern Comforts,” by Kathleen Clark, is a relatively new piece — it was first performed in February, 2006, and its New York premiere took place that fall. There are only two characters, a widow, Amanda Cross, and a widower, Gus Klingman. Gus lives in Morris County, New Jersey. Amanda is from Tennessee and has come north to visit her sister. “Southern Comforts” is not, however, your standard romantic comedy: both partners in this romance are well along in years — at least in their 60s, perhaps in their 70s.
Gus and Amanda’s regional differences and their age are not the only characteristics that make them seem an unlikely couple — he describes himself as a man of few words; she is a woman of many. (“To make a long story short,” she begins at one point. “Too late” is his response.) He is a loner; she is gregarious. He expects to continue living his life exactly as he has before and warns her not to try to change him.
But despite the unlikelihood of their bonding, they do, and quickly. Indeed, everything happens quickly in this play — it all takes place in the space of six months. Halfway through the play the unlikely couple ends up married, which does not mean they manage to resolve all the issues facing them. Indeed, one of the major bones of contention is deciding on their burial arrangements. He expects to be buried in the plot next to his first wife as planned long ago; she thinks they should be buried next to each other (her first husband is, of course, buried back in Tennessee). His preference is, no surprise, more economical since his plot has already been paid for, but the issue provokes a fair barrage of fireworks. Gus’s musings as he decides on his gravestone are, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a source of entertainment for the audience. It says something about the flavor of “Southern Comforts” to learn that the name of the Tennessee cemetery where Amanda’s first husband is buried is Celebration Hill.
This is not a play with a plot that needs resolution. Gus’s adjustments to his new life take place without much comment, but he is clearly willing to make compromises to protect the relationship that he apparently never before deemed possible. No one is more surprised by this willingness to compromise than Gus himself. That the couple comes together in the first place may be unexpected, but once the unexpected has occurred, the audience is left with the sensation that what has been happening after the couple is first married is what will continue happening until the end of their lives. And this is, after all a comedy — indeed, the kind of comedy where you are supposed to laugh at funny lines and funny situations, but not the kind of comedy where you are expected to mull over what you have just seen.
Lois Carr, who plays Amanda, is an Off-Broadstreet veteran, as both an actress and a director. A resident of Bensalem, her day job is with the Hematology and Oncology department at the Cooper Cancer Institute. Dennis McGeady, who portrays Gus, lives in Plainsboro and is appearing for the first time with Off-Broadstreet. He has had considerable experience in the New York theater, appearing in many shows both off and off-off Broadway. He has also appeared frequently in a variety of TV commercials. Both Carr and McGeady are convincing in their roles.
Robert Thick continues his traditional role as director and designer. The shape and design of the single set, which represents Gus’s house, may look a little familiar to Off-Broadstreet veterans, but the ideas behind Thick’s choices have proved their usefulness, and there can be no reason not to use them again. And this set does have at least one unusual aspect — we can see that one facade is made of stone (Gus is by profession a stone mason). The sparse furnishing of the interior fits with Gus’s bare-bones personality, and leaves room for Amanda, despite Gus’s resistance, to move in some large bookcases and other irems of furniture after they are married.
Thick’s direction makes sure that what happens on stage makes sense in terms of the script and is readable by the audience. Similarly, the audience can expect attractive and appropriate costumes from Ann Raymond.
Audiences in need of de-stressing should have a good time at “Southern Comforts.” They shouldn’t expect too much, though. There do not seem to be any social issues lurking in the humor, and although there are many good jokes and many a laugh, I was not aware of any point at which the audience was gasping for breath.
“Southern Comforts,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, October 2. Romantic drama. Dessert is served one hour before curtain time. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.