Hello Out There, Javelina Theatre Company, at Cafe Voltaire

As is abundantly evident in his surefire The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan brought unashamed sentiment and inexhaustible compassion to life’s underdogs. In this 1945 one-act, two lonely souls meet, improbably and tragically, in a Texas jail.

A young gambler is accused of rape by a woman who demanded money for sex and, when refused, hurled a false accusation. Plaintively intoning “Hello out there,” the sweet-talking prisoner strikes up a sudden flame with Emily, the jail’s equally lonesome teenage cook. He sees her as the good-luck charm that will end his hard times once he weds her in San Francisco. She’s smitten as much by his rhapsodic description of the City by the Bay as by his sincerity: he gives her his savings so that, even if he can’t escape, she will. But their hopes for a second chance are thwarted by the accuser’s husband, an avenger who’s not likely to accept the truth about his live-in Jezebel.

Matt Scharff’s sturdy staging is as elemental as Saroyan’s script, underlining the extremes of the playwright’s not-so-subtle character contrasts. Gillian Geraghty makes sense of Emily’s simple, sudden faith in an exotic stranger. But Ben Byer as the eloquent, handsome young gambler exudes too much confidence and control: even after he gives Emily his money, it’s hard to believe he’s not conning her. Byer has to undermine the guy’s smoothness in order to expose the desperation that makes this gambler risk so much for a soul mate in similar straits.

—Lawrence Bommer