Love can blossom at any age, but a potential couple's priorities and expectations vary wildly according to the couple's life stage, a scenario played out in Studio Players' latest production, Southern Comforts.
Directed by Scott Turner, Southern Comforts centers on widowed seniors Gus and Amanda, who navigate awkward discussions, personality conflicts and re-awakening sexuality to forge a happy marriage.
But it's not the kind of let's-conquer-the-world-together marriage of the young. Gus and Amanda like to watch baseball. She is tired of being alone, and he wants "someone to be sad" when he dies.
As the only two actors in the show, John W. Campbell and Mary Anne Matthews do a lot of heavy lifting in their roles as Gus and Amanda. For the most part, they succeed. Matthews embodies bright, Southern charm, and Campbell is a crotchety coot who is transformed by love.
But Kathleen Clark's script and the show's set create some obstacles that work against the duo, particularly in the first act.
For instance, the Spartan setting of Gus' New Jersey home is an awkward space for courting. The large white walls and the scarcity of real furniture or props don't give Campbell or Matthews much to work with physically.
They do occasionally sit, but the majority of their courtship consists of them walking around a room, looking in different directions and speechifying about their former lives. Turner keeps the blocking moving, so the play's momentum doesn't sag, but the sweetly awkward aspect of their romance is made clunkily awkward by the actors having to compete with the hulking blandness of the space.
Perhaps that is purposeful, a metaphor of their relationship: Amanda fighting hard to bring color and life to Gus' immovably drab world. Either way, I am pretty sure seniors like to sit down when they are negotiating marriage terms, which, despite their genuine affection, is what the first act is really about.
Before they even kiss, the pair engage in a lengthy diplomatic process, mapping out their expectations for a future together. Much of the give and take is charming and humorous — especially Amanda's sassy appeal for sex — but I was disappointed that Amanda seemed to give up so much more than Gus, including her Tennessee home and her desire to travel.
The second act brings a post-marriage wash of warmth, humor and comfort to the stage, as Amanda has moved her furniture in and has made Gus' empty house a home. It's also when some of the most rewarding character development unfolds.
Matthews' Amanda, draped in a thick Southern accent, continues to inspire Gus with an exuberant dedication that is later crushed.
Amanda's heartbreak and Gus' earnest effort to make her happy give Matthews and Campbell the opportunity to cast off the first-act awkwardness of dating and comfortably embrace the emotional potency of their marriage.