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Making Change 

Expectations! How they sneak up on us. Take the Big Top Gallery. Nice place, about a block off St. Charles on Clio Street. It's got youthful, bohemian vibes -- what with the provocative art on the walls, the rock music blasting out of the speakers. But I didn't come to see art, I came to see a play.

Now, I wouldn't say my expectations as a theatergoer were low, exactly. But I was expecting something on the order of "youthful bohemia takes the stage" -- something artsy, inventive, edgy.

Well, The Woolgatherer, by William Mastrosimone, is artsy, inventive and edgy. But not in the way I expected. My expectations were disappointed, or, I should say surpassed. The play is a simple, serious, intimate drama about courtship. Don't let that "serious" scare you. There's humor aplenty, but the fundamental issues -- the reaching out for and pulling back from contact, from love, or at least the possibility of love -- resonate with all of us.

The offbeat script requires solid, assured, committed acting. Ashley Ricord and Michael Aaron Santos give it that and then some.

Performing on a cement floor, amid a meager collection of second-hand furniture, the two actors hold us spellbound with a nuanced evocation of a mismatched pair of lovers. This seat-of-your-pants, theater-of-poverty staging has nothing going for it in terms of production values. But, in spite of that (or perhaps, because of that) it's a radiant, satisfying evening of theater.

Basically, we watch what happens when Rose brings Cliff home to her efficiency apartment in south Philadelphia. We don't get much information about who these people are. Our sense of them is provisional and based mostly on the complex emotional dance they do -- a mating dance, I suppose. Certainly, it's as odd as the mating dance of wild turkeys and other shy, wild creatures.

Gradually, certain facts fall into place, however. Rose, we learn, sells candy in a five and dime. She doesn't have much money. She leads a simple, deprived existence. For instance, she has only one chair and uses a wooden crate as its companion. When it comes to her deprivations, you sometimes can't tell where penury leaves off and eccentricity takes over, for Rose has an eccentric streak that runs towards the pure and the prudish. She can't stand swearing, for instance. Coarseness of any kind jangles her nerves. Sexuality is tainted for her by danger.

The fear and vulnerability she feels is summed up in an episode of violence she once witnessed. Rose was very taken with some beautiful, large cranes in a zoo she used to visit. These birds were four of the last seven surviving individuals of this endangered species. One day, some drunken, rowdy boys arrived in a car with loud music blaring. They started throwing rocks at the cranes. Then, they got nastier and stoned the cranes to death. Fragile beauty was smashed and destroyed by coarse hooligans. Clearly, Rose fears in some way this could happen to her.

The suitor that Rose has brought home with her is a truck driver named Cliff. Cliff seems an odd choice as Rose's potential new boyfriend, unless you subscribe to the theory of forbidden fruit and the attraction of opposites. Cliff is a somewhat obstreperous extrovert, quick with a joke, quick with a laugh. His 18 wheeler has broken down, so he's kind of at sea. He's bought a six pack of beer. He's looking for a little "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am" -- or so he claims.

If that were all he was looking for, however, you get the feeling things would not have gone so far. This is not a Stanley Kowalsky versus Blanche Dubois kind of set-to. Cliff may not be as hypersensitive as Rose, but he's not one of the rowdies who would stone the cranes, either. Both Rose and Cliff are complex, lonely, driven characters.

I've talked a lot about the characters of The Woolgatherer, but not much about the story. Yet, there is a story. In a way, it comes down to whether Rose will go with Cliff to see the ocean -- she never has seen the ocean. Needless to say, that ocean shimmers with sexual promise. Furthermore, the story has some twists and surprises. By the end of the play -- due to one of these twists -- the title takes on a new and disturbing significance.

In short, The Woolgatherer is an unexpected treat -- the very best kind.

A tip of the hat to Jim Winter, who shares co-directing credit with the members of InSideOut Theater company. A tip of the hat, as well, to Adele Borie, director of The Big Top Gallery, who tells me she plans to have many other theater events in the future.

click to enlarge Cliff tries to coax Rose out of her reclusive life in - The Woolgatherer.
  • Cliff tries to coax Rose out of her reclusive life in The Woolgatherer.
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