Goose Island Theatre

at Avenue Theatre

The comedic equivalent of the cross-country marathon is the French farce–sometimes defined as three men, seven women, and ten doors–which frequently has little more to offer in the way of humor than its irreverent haste in flouting serious matters.

Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii, by Canadian playwright Allan Stratton, is such a play. Nurse Jane is actually the heroine of a series of romance novels authored by Vivien Bliss, herself a rather romantic and virginal maiden who intends to remedy at least a part of that condition during a weekend spent in the apartment of Edgar Chisholm. He is the bored spouse of Doris, a successful syndicated advice columnist. Difficulties begin when Doris decides to cancel her out-of-town trip and stay home with her husband, a plan that is discovered by the two would-be paramours only after Vivien is down to her baby-dolls. The confusion grows with the introduction of Bill Scant, a henpecked husband seeking an emergency consultation with Doris. Then there’s Peggy Scant, who believes Bill to be her older brother, but who is actually his and Doris’s daughter, and who is an investigative journalist bent on exposing any dirt she can find on Doris. And there’s Betty Scant, Bill’s wife and Edgar’s ex-wife. And Vivien’s editor, impatient for an overdue Nurse Jane manuscript. And Peter Pryor, the long-lost son of Edgar and Betty’s short-lived marriage, who has fled his adoptive family to search for his real parents. Just to make all this a little more confusing, Vivien has decided that her weekend adventure would make wonderful material for a novel and proceeds to spin a purple-prose fantasy as events unfold around her.

Given the relaxing of so many restrictions on sexual customs in modern society, you might think this kind of Dickensian puzzle wouldn’t play anymore. But the human condition has not changed, and comedy always stands squarely behind life-affirming values. Whatever flaws in the universe may be uncovered by tragedy, comedy takes the position that it’s still the only universe we’ve got, and directs its efforts toward the defeat of those extremists who would disturb what serenity can be found in it. Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii is no exception. By the final curtain order has been restored. Edgar and Doris have come to a satisfactory understanding, Peggy has learned the truth of her origins, Peter has found the family he longed for, Vivien has completed her novel, and the disharmonious Bill and Betty have been banished–albeit with a hint that their relationship too will change for the better as a result of their experience. Unlike tragedy, which only corrects through death and suffering, comedy doesn’t desert even its most disobedient children. If life is to go on, there must always be hope for reform.

The energy requirement for this kind of play is roughly that of a 15-mile sprint–and this production company does two shows back-to-back on Saturdays. I saw the second show, and highest praise is due to director David Whitaker and his cast of seasoned veterans for keeping the pace brisk and the action crisp. Particularly outstanding is Nanette Brown as the stentorian-voiced, cutthroat career-woman-from-hell, Betty Scant. Even the staunchest feminists will cheer when this dressed-for-success harpy gets her comeuppance. As the timid Bill Scant, her thin-skinned dermatologist spouse, James Harvey is pitiful as only a small man trapped in a large body can be. John McCormack and Bernadette O’Malley play their counterparts Edgar and Doris Chisholm with a dignity and compassion that would make Judith Martin proud. In the role of Peter Pryor, Chris Cole continues to display the fresh-faced presence that made him a pleasure to watch in the recent Courage Untold, while Laurena Mullins, as Peggy Scant, brings a winsome appeal to a role that could easily have become petulantly insipid. Linda Van Etten plays Vivien Bliss as the perfect combination of slew-footed spinster–even her sexy nightgown looks like something one would wear in a college dormitory–and secret seductress.

The elephant-in-the-Volkswagen award goes to set designer Bruce Brown, who somehow managed to cram onto Avenue Theatre’s tiny stage five doors, a hallway, a fireplace, several plants, a desk, and a sofa that opens into the obligatory bed. The fruit-salad colors of the set are hilarious in themselves, as is the balmy sea-breeze preshow music assembled by sound designer Russ Gager.