International City Theater Production Pokes Fun at Unitary Love
(International City Theater, Long Beach, California) Three local stage veterans bring a wildly successful production to Long Beach International City Theater as actors Michael Learned and Granville Van Dusen portray two incommunicative lovers catching a second chance at romance in Jules Aaron’s directorial rendition of Southern Comforts
Coincidentally spawned as a stage production not too long after the International City Theater itself was established, Southern Comforts is quite bashful in its take on two well-over-the-hill widowers who find love and romance in a place where anyone would least expect it: a living room within a suburban New Jersey home.
Theater-lovers who trek to the shores of downtown Long Beach to take in this awfully charming and pleasant stage production are sure in for a treat, though you'd better hurry, as Southern Comforts only has two weeks left in its current run at the place commonly referred to as the ICT.
A two-person, one-set production, Southern Comforts takes a few lighthearted jabs at twilight romance, with the daily grinds of life and the mental stubbornness of two individuals who have become very set in their respective ways defying any attempt to unify together in the name of love.
From the get-go, Gus and Amanda intertwine compelling chemistry with reluctant repugnance, each finding traits in the other they either adore or find difficult to accept or understand.
Living in his New Jersey residence, Gus enjoys the simple life all by his lonesome, what with his first wife Helen six feet under and his grown son reluctant to maintain any sort of steady relationship. A minimalist in many ways, Gus is in the midst of tending his household chores while trying to catch the first pitch between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox when the well-dressed and rather chatty Amanda comes a-knocking on his front porch.
When a rain storm suddenly forces Gus to unplug his television and Amanda to take cover, the two strike it up and immediately develop an affinity for each other. Yet, subtly, we learn a little something about each character, specifically in how each lives life by quite a set routine and the ways their respective personas have as much in common as oil and water.
As the production develops, the oil and water that is the sexual relationship between Gus and Amanda progressively becomes tense (though maintaining a level of comic relief that causes the audience to routinely chuckle at the couple’s constant bickering and butting of heads).
With clear-cut impediments in their ultimately budding love story, Gus and Amanda must find a middle ground for their after-the-sunset romance to exist, lest Amanda return to her home in the shadows of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.
Quite the predictable story, what makes Southern Comforts stand out is not its plot development but instead its character development. Van Dusen is masterful as Gus, meticulously portraying an old man unsure of how to express his love for Amanda but earnestly making every effort to demonstrate his love is indeed real. One (men, in particular) cannot help but feel empathy for Gus, as many of us have traveled down that beaten path to the doghouse while we scratch our heads, wondering how our well-intentioned plans to show love to the apples of eye backfired.
Just the same, Learned was utterly adorable as Amanda--the chatterbox of a social butterfly with impeccable fashion sense who bends over backwards like bamboo to please the man she is attracted to before finding reason to just about snap during the production’s climax. Learned made Amanda just as relatable as Van Arden made Gus, with many able to feel her pain as she makes it painfully obvious what she wants her other half to do, only for him to completely drop the ball and make everyone wonder what she ever saw in him in the first place.
With a lovable and affable Amanda to counterbalance the deadpan delivery of the aloof Gus, Van Dusen and Learned are flawless in the respective renditions of their characters.
Perhaps the only thing missing was Van Arden giving Gus a stereotypical Sopranos-style New Jersey accent to counterbalance the southern twang Learned gave Amanda.
Playing at the International City Theater (300 East Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach), Southern Comforts first appeared on stage in 1987, but was rekindled almost 20 years later when the likes of Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook made the production hip again in, of all places, Florida about five years go.
Written by Kathleen Clark, Southern Comforts is now playing through April 10th. Curtain is at 8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; Sunday curtain call is at 2:00 p.m. Running time is 105 minutes.