nytheatre.com review by Susan Gordon
August 21, 2006
Pith! is a race of a play with a slow start. It begins in a courtyard in Providence, Rhode Island after Sunday services, where people meet for food and gossip. There, two people unlikely to share pie—Nancy Kimble, a plain, bored church lady who likely is younger than she looks, and Jack Vail, a good-enough-looking dreamer of a sailor with some odd facial and body phrasing—share a little flight of fancy in which he guides her to the starring role of tourist. When he learns she works for Mrs. Virginia Tilford, a broken-hearted widow, the stage is set for the bulk of the show.
What follows is a voyage that can legitimately be called madcap through New Orleans, Panama, and Ecuador (to the fabled place called Oriente). There are three actors, a few chairs, and some household items here and there, but from them develops a list of characters and objects too long to write here, including a pirate-like man holding the one very valuable copy of the map Mr. Tilford tragically followed ten long years ago, a madly jabbering guide shot with a poison dart, and a magical lake. People and things alike are moved along forcefully without ever leaving the stage. . . hem hem, I mean, Mrs. Tilford's living room.
Stewart Lemoine, artistic director of Edmonton's Teatro La Quindicina, wrote and directed this charmingly old-fashioned hour of horsing around. It's 1931, the world is sepia-toned, and when it's sad it's to the tunes of Rosa Ponselle played on a portable Victrola. At first introduction, the characters seem stilted, too obvious, too over-the-top. Nancy Kimble sharing pie after Sunday service is amusing but in the ways a caricature is. Vail is simply too sudden and silly to be taken seriously from a seat in a quiet and darkened theatre. The first glimpse of the grieving widow Tilford comes off best of the three: she is exactly what you'd expect a quick mock-up of an upper-class Rhode Island widow to be. When Vail arrives in a frantic jumpy whirl, she is knocked off-kilter, but pulls off just the type of cool witty responses you'd suppose.
The last moment I remember resisting Pith!'s odd allure was during Mrs. Tilford's abrupt decision to embark on Vail's strange trip. Was it the presence of a man, any man, that did it? She certainly didn't seem won over. Shaken, and in the right ways, sure, but hers was far too quick of a conversion and I was not quite buying it. Then sometime later, and without noticing how, or when, or why, I found myself right alongside the two travelers and their Jack-in-a-box-like guide. This play's magic is that you can see it more and more clearly as it goes on, letting the actors open up, blossom. Nancy Kimble reveals herself to be a brassy tough gal, Mae West-like, while Vail becomes ever more pleasingly cartoonlike, Ren and Stimpy-esque.
Jack Vail stands for the opposite of "pith and practicality," which he points out as the ruiners of the world. He gives you instructions for following the play early on: "Close your eyes and bring those images to mind. Make sure they're vivid and in color." No need. It took the actors, and me, a while to warm up, but by the time we were closing in on Oriente I realized I'd begun to believe quite some time ago. And, actually, I still don't entirely believe that we never left the living room.