Sunday, October 9, 2011

Theatre review: "Shaken and Stirred" at Off the Wall Productions-Sunday 9th October 2011

I’ve no doubt that you will be stirred by the performances and by the stories of Shaken and Stirred, written by Virginia Wall Gruenert and produced by her own company Washington PA’s Off the Wall Productions.

As the title certainly suggests, this has to do with drinking. Serious drinking. Alcoholism, in fact. That’s hardly a rare subject for drama, being depicted in many famous movies, but less often dealt with on stage. It is a theme clearly running through stage works, such as many Irish plays or the work of Irish-American Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill in particular explored the effect of drunkenness on families. Wall-Gruenert’s play also deals with families but goes in many meaningful, insightful and unpredictable directions, effortlessly blending interconnected themes in ways neither polemic nor melodramatic. The result left a deep, thoughtful, strong impression long after I’d departed the theater, especially since I have just been watching Ken Burns’ TV series about Prohibition.

Likewise leaving a strong impression: the phenomenal acting of Erica Cuenca and Karen Baum. These two have become regulars at Off the Wall and director Robyne Parrish could not have made a better choice than to cast them in the two principal roles. Cuenca’s natural, truthful playing comes suffused with internal beauty which makes her every moment on stage alive with meaning, from portraying a pre-teen to a maturing college girl. Watching her, for example, at one end of a phone conversation would be instructive for any actor. And Baum gives an amazingly disturbing, convincingly sorrowful performance evolving into another kind of sweet beauty.

Shaken and Stirred essentially probes the lives of two young women, Harley played by Baum and Happy, interpreted by Cuenca. Harley, raped in her teens, has become a stumbling, wanton bar girl and unwed mother, yearning as much for the daughter taken away from her as for any kind of bottle with which to nurse her addiction. By contrast, Happy has intelligent, perceptive control of her life, despite a father so perpetually drunk as to be mentally and emotionally absent even while at home.

Wall-Gruenert’s one-act 75 minute play also dwells on a woman named Roz, swiftly but thoroughly drawn, and whose life outside the bottle is as unpredictable and original as other developments in the script. Wall-Gruenert plays that role herself with the same kind of unforced truthfulness that director Parrish has capably evoked from the other women.

Oddly, though, there is one scene which goes into an incongruous non-realistic fantasy, a quiz show called “Name That Belief System,” which sidetracks the otherwise believable essence of the play. Continuing to ponder it, I still don’t get the point. Deleting it certainly would make the play about 10 minutes shorter, but since the rest never drags and always remains engaging, the question of minutes seems irrelevant; you won’t think about how long or how short this is, but rather about how much it says in whatever time it takes.

FYI: speaking of time, you may find, as I did, that driving from Pittsburgh to Washington, PA along Interstate 79 will not move swiftly. Construction projects narrowed a long stretch into one lane for several miles. I found the trip worth it.

Shaken and Stirred continues through October 22nd at Off The Wall Productions 147 N.Main Street, Washington, PA Tickets through at 12/ 394-3353 or at; phone: 724/873-3576

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