Sunday, February 5, 2012

Theatre review: "Mid-Strut" at Pittsburgh Playhouse

Of course you can never accurately predict your future based on your present actions. And you can continually second-guess what you could have done in the past. But no matter what you do or have done every action often generates a reaction you could not have anticipated.

So go the inner workings in the fascinating ebb and flow of a remarkable world-premiering play by Ambridge PA’s Eric Burns. Burns is a much-lauded journalist and author whose career leapt off from WQED-TV to NBC News to Fox News and writing acclaimed non-fiction. Given all that experience, many of his admirers could have predicted that he’d come up with such an impressive theatre debut. They would have been right. Witness the result, Mid-Strut, in a superbly acted, perceptively directed production at The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Faced with imminent death from incurable cancer 50ish Jack Allison spends his final time and energies trying to connect with the adult version of Wendy, a high school majorette for whose peppy energy and flashy thighs he hopelessly yearned in those emotionally uncertain years. As they come together, her marriage to Jack McGruder has lost its footing due to his confessed mis-step, a one-month fling with a younger woman. Tangled in between them is their college-age daughter Sarah, whose loyalties vacillate even as she tries to find her own path in her still emerging life. As to why Burns chose to call both men Jack, add that as something to ponder once you’ve gone back to your own home, where, I hope,happiness and tenderness are reaffirmed, stimulated by the beautiful moments of this play.

The premise could strike you as rather predictable and devoid of serious thought provocation. But Burns is old enough, wise enough and skilled enough to know about the complexities of human behavior and to convey them in intelligent, natural dialogue, sometimes peppered with wry humor. So, even as death looms for Jack Allison while the McGruder family seems to be painfully falling apart,there are smiles and warmth. And their lives keep changing in unexpected ways.

Visiting actor Robert Turano creates a beautifully nuanced portrait of Jack Allison, still capable of innocence, but mature and thoughtful, never maudlin, always ready to deal with what his ebbing life yet has to offer. Cary Anne Spear, another visitor, does equally well in conveying Wendy’s conventional nature, what you might expect from the girl she may have been. Spear also makes clear Wendy’s emotional vulnerabilities and her hesitant striving for inner strength. As Jack McGruder, John Shepard capably shows his many dimensions, including his transformation from sorrowful guilt to emerging self-confidence while still being edgy and not able to bend enough. Add to them the always convincing vitality and complexity of Point Park Conservatory grad Maggie Carr’s Sarah. Plus the Conservatory faculty’s Philip Winters gives warm humanness to Jack Allison’s oncologist Paul Hodges.

Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom has impressively shaded and shaped these performances to make them a fine coherent whole. At the same time he has brought out telling, reflective reactions, keeping the staging and the pace vital but sensitive.

Playwright Burns has given us memorable portraits of real people dealing with the vagaries of real life…and death. Allan-Lindblom and his fine cast likewise make it so. This play may yet have a further real life, reaching out in other cities to say something significant to people like us, like the two Jacks, like Wendy.

Mid-Strut continues through February 19th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland 412/ 392-8000

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