Coming of Age

CoABy Philip Pearce

A GOOD PLOT keeps a theater-goer guessing what’s going to happen next. A really good one makes sure that what does happen is lots more interesting than the guesses. A new play by Kate Hawley that has just premiered at Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz is a beautiful example. Even the title is a tease. Coming of Age suggests it’s going to be about some adolescent breakthrough into maturity. But the youngest of Hawley’s four characters turns out to be in her late thirties and the oldest achieves a fresh maturity only in his late seventies.

He’s a retired English professor named John recently shattered by the death of his adored wife Lucy. When his novelist son Ian arrives ready to cheer things up with a fishing trip they’ve planned together, John suddenly seems to have forgotten they ever made such a plan. Mike Ryan, taking a break from his job as Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director, is a dynamic but increasingly confused Ian as doubts and frustrations about his father’s atypical behavior keep spiraling and exploding all around him. Is all of this the onset of dementia or is the old man pretending? The wry and resourceful J. Michael Flynn offers little help and a lot of red herrings as a furtive, funny and devious septuagenarian.

Kent Dorsey’s fine rambling country house set becomes a minefield of intriguing clues. Why has the well-loved Lucy‘s image been removed from its place of honor among the photographs on top of her well-loved piano? Why are her clothes and possessions stashed all around the guest room Ian starts to occupy till John suggests he bed down instead at the local Holiday Inn? If John has forgotten the fishing date, why has he left a fully packed suitcase near the front door? Why is this lived-in family home which used to be so cluttered and dusty looking so spotless and tidy? When Martha Brigham, charmingly brisk and efficient in the role of a helpful ex-student of John’s named Deirdre, seems to provide an answer, she then only complicates matters further by flatly denying she does any cleaning.

Ian’s efforts to solve the puzzle of his father’s atypical behavior are the launch pad for a witty and perceptive exploration of three fascinating lead characters tied up in some interlocking secrets they keep from each other and sometimes even from themselves. Nancy Carlin, always a delight to watch at work, appears all too briefly as a very unexpected visitor who offers John some sage and useful advice at a major turning point in his geriatric coming of age. Paul Whitworth directs the action with a brisk sense of the fun of making guesses and being fooled.

It’s all done with the finesse of a good who-dunnit script, but with characters who exist not to make plot points but to relate to each other humorously and with a convincing human truth.

The play continues at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center off River Street through April 8th.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo