Stage Left Theatre Company

I might as well admit it up front: this is going to be an unfair review of the Stage Left Theatre’s production of A Different Moon, by Ara Watson.

I’ve seen the play before. About five years ago the Next Theatre Company in Evanston did a memorable, to say the least, production. Harriet Spizziri’s direction was perceptive and vibrant, the cast was excellent, and an actress named Ann Dowd, who was making her professional debut, gave a performance that was simply astonishing.

So I feel like I’ve seen the definitive interpretation of the play. In comparison, the Stage Left version looks like a crude tracing of an exquisitely detailed painting. What I noticed was not what was there but what was missing–and there was a lot missing.

I want to be clear about this. If I had never seen this play before, the Stage Left production would probably look pretty good. Watson’s play is quaint, poetic, and in many ways irresistible. It’s about a 25-year-old soldier named Tyler Biars who has returned home to visit his mother and sister in Arkansas before going off to fight in the Korean War. He is the prince of the household. His widowed mother dotes on him with an almost oedipal intensity; his teenage sister pesters him to take her to a dance and accompany her to church. It’s clear that Tyler is the main man for both of these women, and he struts about like a sheik in his harem, flirting and teasing.

So when a third woman shows up on their doorstep, pregnant with Tyler’s child, it’s pretty clear there’s going to be a little friction in the Biars household.

But that friction is not clear in the Stage Left version. The woman, named Sarah, is not just an interloper, but a profound embarrassment to the family. She comes from a family of dirt-poor Georgia farmers and met Tyler when her brother brought him home from boot camp. Poor and dowdy, she is nine years older than Tyler and not too bright. It took her four days by bus to get to the Biars home in Masefield, Arkansas, because she mistakenly bought a ticket to Masefield, Louisiana.

In the Next Theatre production, the tension was unmistakable. Tyler’s mother is torn between the demands of southern hospitality and her fear of what the neighbors will think; Tyler’s 17-year-old sister Jean is appalled that her brother paid attention to such an unattractive woman. In a brilliant move, Ann Dowd chose to portray Sarah as borderline mentally defective. Dowd didn’t dwell on this aspect of Sarah’s personality, but by making her voice sound hollow and by making her movements graceless, Dowd suggested that Sarah was not fully capable of protecting herself. That subtle suggestion made Tyler’s behavior even more reprehensible.

Tyler behaves like a real skunk when confronted with Sarah’s situation, but the three women gradually draw together into a strong, independent unit that is delightful to behold. A Different Moon isn’t exactly a feminist play, but it certainly presents an attractive portrait of female bonding.

These bonds–and these battle lines–are not clearly drawn in the Stage Left production. As the mother, Debra Rodkin is too young–both in appearance and in demeanor–to pass as a righteous southern widow who has high hopes for her only son. Renee Cajandig almost misses the boat with her portrayal of Tyler’s sister, Jean. Her hostility toward Sarah is not clear at first, and by the time she starts getting snotty, it’s too little, too late.

Marjorie Hillocks’s portrayal of Sarah as a sweet, obsequious country gal who wears homely dresses and funny hats is sensible and effective–if a little pale in comparison with Dowd’s ingenious interpretation.

Only Richard Ladd outshines my memory of his counterpart in the Next production. With his goofy grin and flirtatious manner, Ladd is the embodiment of a would-be stud–someone who thinks he’s a real lady-killer, but takes advantage of an inexperienced woman who develops a crush on him.

As I said, I’m not being fair. Director Ann Fournier has put together a workable interpretation of the script, making solid, sensible choices each step of the way. But I remain enchanted by a different Moon.