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Lovers
by Brian Friel
Directed by Jan Meyer
West End Players Guild
February 15, 2014

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Valentine’s Day is traditionally a time for lovers, and West End Players Guild as chosen this weekend to open their latest production, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s appropriately named Lovers.  Contrary to the title, however, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a romance. It’s not even really one play. It’s a mini-cycle of two contrasting plays, providing a look into life and Irish culture in the 1960’s. It’s a low-key production that hits many profound notes.

Lovers tells two stories in its two contrasting short plays. Act 1, called “Winners”, features teenagers Joe (John Lampe) and Mag (Betsy Bowman) who are spending an afternoon studying for exams as they prepare to leave school and get married because Mag is pregnant. As two detached commentators (Steve Callahan and Kristy Wehrle) narrate the action and give details of what happens after this day, Joe and Mag argue, reflect, hope and plan for their future in a society where their lives will soon be changed significantly. It’s a section full of youthful impulsiveness, energetic banter, and even a little yelling and screaming as these two young sweethearts consider their options and share their dreams, all while the dispassionate observers reveal some extra information that adds weight, and a large degree of cynicism, to the situation.  Act 2 is called “Losers” and followers and older courting couple, Andy (Colin Nichols) and Hanna (Theresa Masters) as they attempt to establish a relationship and marriage despite the passive-aggressive manipulation of Hanna’s devout Catholic mother (Suzanne Greenwald), who with the assistance of an equally devout elderly neighbhor (Liz Hopefl) tries to use her faith, and particularly involved nightly prayer sessions, to drive a wedge between the couple.

Full of contrasting humor and tension, Lovers is a sharp examination of Irish culture of the time and the influence of the community, and a particular brand of  Catholicism, on individuals’ lives and prospects for romantic happiness.  Both segments deal with these cultural issues in different ways.  Joe and Mag are wide-eyed and hopeful one minute, and combative the next as they face the prospect of a life together. They appear to be genuinely in love, but their widely battling personalities and the social pressure to leave school and get married casts some doubt on their future happiness.  Andy and Hanna, on the other hand, face a more directly personal form of pressure in the person of Hanna’s mother and her determination to control all aspects of her daughter’s life.  It’s outrageously funny in places, but the undertone of tragedy is there also, in both acts.  It’s a reflection, it seems, of Friel’s own doubts about the culture of the times, and his examination of its ultimate implications.

The look of this production is simple, with just a few set pieces (designed by Ethan Dudenhoeffer) and period-appropriate costumes (by Renee Sevier-Monsey) to establish the atmosphere. The “Winners” segment is is full of brighter colors suggesting the youthful energy of the two protaganists, while the “Losers” segment shows a more muted color scheme, suggesting a tone of weariness, and director Jan Meyer makes excellent use of the performance areas in the dynamic staging.  Acting-wise, the cast is in excellent form. Lampe and Bowman are a study in contrast as the youthful Joe and Mag. Lampe’s Joe is quieter, reflective and more practical than the fiery, impulsive Mag. Their romantic chemistry is readily evident, and charming. Callahan and Wehrle are effective as the coldly efficient but not unsympathetic narrators, as well.  The “Losers” cast is also well-chosen, with Nichols’s wry Andy and Masters’s alternately eager and jaded Hanna making an entertaining match.  Greenwald is hilariously histrionic as Hanna’s mother, and Hopefl is gleefully melodramatic as the neighbhor, as these two provide much of this segment’s over-the-top humor.

Without giving away too much, I will say that I find Friel’s vision to be bleak, but very vividly realized in his richly drawn characters and situations.  The tagline on the program reads “Love is a very funny tragedy”, and that plays out clearly in this production. It’s a well-crafted play, and West End Players guild has presented it in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. There are a lot of laughs, but also a lot to think and talk about. It may not be a traditional Valentine’s offering, but it’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

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