nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
August 15, 2004
In Pith!, written and directed by Stewart Lemoine, Jack Vail (the boundless Jeff Haslam), a seafaring wanderer, narrates a lyrical yarn about his decision to settle briefly in Providence, Rhode Island in 1931, and his providential encounter at a Presbyterian church service with the mournful Virginia Tilford (Davina Stewart) and her companion Nancy Kimble (Leona Brausen). In the Prologue, Jack sets up the period, mood, pace, and convention of Lemoine’s plot and purpose, mostly through a perfectly nuanced monologue but also in a wonderfully simple scene with Ms. Kimble in which the two characters get the ball rolling with some dexterous verbal banter. It seems that Mr. Tilford, heir to a Silverware fortune, went missing ten years past on an expedition to find silver in the rainforest of Ecuador, and Virginia now wallows in seclusion listening exclusively to Rosa Ponselle opera recordings. Jack, with his gift for imaginings, promises Ms. Kimble that he can rid Mrs. Tilford of her forlorn grief and invites himself over the next afternoon to prove it.
While it’s all got a clean good-hearted feel to it, there’s an element of the snake oil salesman in Jack and of the rube in Ms. Kimble. But when the fun gets going in the Tilford mansion, even Mrs. Tilford’s decade of grief is easily washed away with a forced attempt at slapstick. Jack barges in impersonating a government adjuster of furniture and Ms. Kimble tries her best to keep up with the nonsense and stay out of his tempest. Just when you think Mrs. Tilford would be ready to go “send in the hounds!” on Jack, she not only gets on the train, but she conducts. The wild concoctions they brew up involve a transcontinental, trans-Caribbean adventure on trains, ships, and canoes to the jungles of Ecuador, retracing Tilford’s own journey and resolving Virginia’s acceptance of his death. All accomplished without ever leaving the sitting room of the Tilford mansion, very clean, smooth, even providential in its ease. It all comes too easily: for Jack in convincing both Kimble and Tilford; for Virginia in accepting this stranger and letting go of ten years' worth of unresolved grief; and for Lemoine in resolving every plot point neatly, even Jack’s karma.
I’d hate to think that I’m too hardened to appreciate a night of wispy light fare. But I can’t deny that I have a low threshold for sweets. Pith! provides more than enough sweet goodness, but offers little in the way of substance or, well, pith. However, if the rest of Teatro la Quindicina (the Edmonton, Canada company that is presenting this show at FringeNYC) is as professional as the crew here, they’re headed in the right direction.