nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 14, 2006
Kathleen Clark's new romantic comedy, Southern Comforts, loosely follows the structure of its genre, but is hardly predictable. This story of two senior citizens finding love later in life is a charming surprise, directed with grace and humor by theatre veteran Judith Ivey, and led by a pair of strong lead performances from Penny Fuller and Larry Keith.
Grouchy and taciturn Gus has been a widower for some time now. Almost completely estranged from his only son, he now lives a Spartan bachelor's life after decades spent in a loveless marriage. One day, Amanda, a perky Southerner, comes knocking at his door. Widowed herself, she's out shilling for the local church. It turns out she's in town visiting her daughter and grandchildren. When a sudden thunderstorm strands Amanda in Gus's living room, the two get better acquainted. Tiny little sparks fly as it soon becomes clear they have piqued each other's interest. Amanda extends her trip, and she and Gus begin dating.
Their budding romance, however, opens up a whole can of worms. First of all, are they going to keep seeing each other long-distance? If so, then why not just get married? But, if they do that, where will they live: Gus's northern New Jersey home, or Amanda's place back in Johnson City, Tennessee? Gus's aversion to traveling, and his stubbornness about letting Amanda move all of her furniture into his house—as well as her unwillingness to give any of it up—make these all touchy subjects. Both characters are very set in their ways.
But, these issues give way to more serious ones. Gus is still shaken by his experience in World War II, just as Amanda's late husband was. And, his marriage has left him skittish about sex and intimacy. Their conversation about whether Gus can still perform in the bedroom or not, or if he even wants to anymore, is one of the show's many poignant highlights.
Clark makes sure to mix in plenty of humor, both everyday and morbid. An extended scene in which Gus and Amanda struggle with a storm window is written and played to comic perfection. Clark even makes shopping for headstones tastefully funny: Amanda jokes that her epitaph will read, "She knew when to leave a party."
Ultimately, though, Southern Comforts is about the challenges that confront every couple, no matter how old they are. Are they getting together for the right reasons? Do they have enough in common to make a relationship last? Can a Democrat and Republican live happily ever after together? For Gus, their longtime potential is all about making sacrifices, while for Amanda it's about building togetherness.
Clark's achievement here is twofold. First, she's written a romantic comedy with almost no sentimentality. At one point, one of the characters admits that they'd like nothing more than to have someone in their life "who'd feel sad when I die"—a blunt and bold admission. Secondly, she imbues the play with a palpable sense of uncertainty. Are Gus and Amanda going to make it or not? That Clark can maintain that suspense until the play's final scene is pretty impressive. Many playwrights would love to learn that trick.
Ivey's assured direction never calls attention to itself, and gives the actors lots of wiggle room to play with. Under her guidance, Southern Comforts takes on the familiar ebb-and-flow of life. Fuller is wonderful as Amanda, giving the role a sexy, nurturing richness. Keith is equally good as Gus, giving a performance full of quiet depth. In one scene, in particular, he nearly breaks one's heart with Gus's little-seen vulnerability: unsure of whether he and Amanda are finished or not, Gus moves around the room silently straightening all of her things, as if touching them will bring her back or provide the fulfillment he needs. It's a small moment that reveals how much Amanda has gotten under this man's skin, and Keith nails it.
Southern Comforts is a pleasure from beginning to end. Clark's skillful writing, Ivey's confident direction, and the onstage tandem of Fuller and Keith all make this production worth checking out.