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at Victory Gardens Studio Theater
Oasis Theatre’s production of Blind Hearts hasn’t quite found its feet. This romantic comedy by Joel Johnson is by turns satirical, sentimental, and realistic–and unfortunately these different approaches don’t enhance one another, don’t create a fuller sense of reality than one approach alone would have. Instead they bump awkwardly together, and the play never quite jells.
It almost seems that Johnson is writing a response to David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a play ripe for further exploration. Like Mamet, Johnson gives us a man and a woman who are romantically involved and another man and woman who remain on the sidelines for the most part. Virginia (Peggy Dunne) and Roy (Robert W. Barnett) spend the play maneuvering cautiously into marriage, while Virginia’s sister, Beverly (Diane Carr), and Roy’s best friend, Larry (Mark Wohlgenant), give lots of well-meaning but impractical advice. Larry, who is all macho bravado, encourages the ever-self-conscious Roy to talk dirty to Virginia. Larry speaks from experience: according to him, when he walks in a room “women’s tits sit up and bark.” Beverly, a practicing witch, casts spells, reads omens, and places a protective circle around Virginia to ensure her good fortune.
Beverly and Larry are by far the most interesting characters, clearly drawn and somewhat lampooned yet complex enough to be fully human. Cleverly, Johnson often lets us see them from two angles at once. The swaggering Larry is in the midst of inflating his ego by reporting to Roy how much the woman across the bar wants him (Larry has trained himself to read lips); then the woman mentions wanting children and he flies into a panic, cowering like a little boy behind Roy. After Beverly performs a mystical fertility rite on Virginia and says “Every spirit I know just blessed you,” she suddenly drops her mystical persona and takes a big drag on her cigarette. It’s a simple moment Carr plays with complete nonchalance, yet somehow that earthy gesture hints that this seemingly flighty woman may be the most pragmatic of the bunch.
Virginia and Roy by comparison are much more sketchily drawn. Virginia is supposedly hyperrational; she makes a bar graph to measure the different kinds and amounts of happiness she feels in her relationship, for example. Roy is shy and unsure of himself; in one charming little scene he’s mortally embarrassed to be seen in red bikini underwear by Virginia even though he put them on especially for her. But their qualities seem decorative rather than essential to their characters and to the play’s development. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for Virginia to be overly rational, nor does that part of her character evolve or change as the play goes on. Virginia and Roy don’t have enough interesting obstacles to overcome, only a frustratingly nebulous fear of commitment and intimacy. The stakes are simply not high enough for these two people to merit a play. The result is that the good supporting characters don’t have a strong story to support.
Oasis Theatre’s production, under Peter Rybolt’s direction, is for the most part curiously hesitant: the cast seem to sneak up on the play rather than claim it for their own. For one thing, Rybolt’s staging often inhibits the actors. Virginia and Beverly’s first scene, for instance, is awkwardly poised on the far-left-hand side of the stage, in a mostly unadorned black corner. Because Rybolt gives them nothing to play off of, the women can only stand uncomfortably, shifting back and forth on their feet.
Only Wohlgenant really dives into the play; his Larry is the most alive character onstage. Wohlgenant is not only a bold physical presence, but his choices are consistently sharp, from vocal projection to sudden swings in emotion to body language. But significantly, even he seems held back, at times rocking back and forth on his feet as if he just doesn’t know what to do with his energy. I saw Wohlgenant turn in a smashing performance several years ago in a small play by his Affordable Theatre Company, so I know that under different circumstances he could have sailed through Blind Hearts. Perhaps Rybolt simply wasn’t able to provide the right environment for him and the rest of the cast to fully commit to this production.