Sunday, May 5, 2013

Theatre review: "Without Ruth" at Off the Wall Productions

Off the Wall Productions is now less far off the Pittsburgh grid than it was in Washington Pa. And this proximity has become really welcome. As its first season ends in Carnegie, Off the Wall is getting an ever-increasing audience with many seats filled with enthusiastic supporters. Such thriving benefits us all. Also the company gives us another close chance to witness excellent performances by local actors, as if Off The Wall is developing something like a repertory company.

Off The Wall still takes chances with the kind of plays for which it has been known, most often those of limited fame, frequently dark or quirky, another reason to gravitate there, out of the mainstream in content as well as geographically.

The current offering seems characteristic, a new play titled Without Ruth by company co-founder Virginia Wall Gruenert. It’s about mothers dying and how their daughters try to deal with that, something you’d least expect especially now around Mother’s Day. But don’t expect somber sorrow, wailing and unceasing grief. Witness a dynamic, versatile and sassy performance by Linda Haston as Ruth, one of the mothers. Haston owns the stage, charming you at every turn, singing with soul, even capably knocking out some tap dancing footwork. And Gruenert and Haston’s characterization fits the subject. Ruth has always dominated the life of her actress daughter Linda who, in this case, Haston likewise expertly portrays.  
The story line stays simple, matching the deliberately short length of about an hour and a half. But the play itself doesn’t go very far with its subject. Gruenert has not made this a reflection on death nor on the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. She mostly shows the two daughters struggling with their feelings not by what they say and think and more by what they do. And she misses the chance to have those two daughters bond and share their feelings. There is a potential here to emotionally connect us to the realization that mothers are just as human as their children and to come to terms with that in acceptance and love.

Ruth is nearing the end of life; Linda wants her own to be more her own. Linda seeks help and advice from Norah, a case worker in a social services agency dealing with aging. As it turns out, Norah’s mother has terminal cancer and wants help to kill herself. This parallel sticks to the subject but feels forced.  We never see Norah’s mother and learn nothing about her other than about her condition, a major contrast to how much we see and learn about Ruth, as if Gruenert is trying to cost-control the staging and production, by limiting the roles and the complexities of more extensive development. This turns out mostly to be a character study. That character is Ruth.
Haston’s performance as Ruth remains full of vitality and dimension, the certain virtue to this experience,underscoring Gruenert’s major thrust. Adrienne Wehr portrays Norah, bringing a lot of emotional dimension to an insufficiently-defined character. And Diana Ifft capably appears as two more people. 

Director F.J. Hartland keeps most of this definitively moving well, although having saxophonist/clarinetist Rob Stull’s on-stage-playing too often reflective, out of keeping with the fact that that every time Ruth appears the play comes across as life-affirming.  
Certainly Gruenert admirably calls for celebration rather than mourning, a good choice; death is inevitable no matter what we do or say in the finite time we’re given to love one another.

Without Ruth continues through May 18th at Off The Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA. Tickets and info: Showclix: 1-888-71-TICKETS(1-888 718 4253)  or at Off the Wall: 724/ 873-3576


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