Curtain Calls

By Donald V. Calamia

Review: 'Ice Glen'

Icy hearts thaw in season opener

"Letting go of anything is painful." And it's never easy, playwright Joan Ackermann's explains in her latest work, "Ice Glen," now playing at Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre.

Ackermann's poetic script follows two women damaged by the past who are afraid - or unable - to break free of the emotional prisons they've constructed within their hearts. Until, that is, an equally impaired man unexpectedly enters their lives and reawakens something deep inside them all.

Sarah Harding, a gardener at the once magnificent estate of Samuel and Dulce Bainbridge, has a special gift: She expresses her innermost thoughts through poetry. But unbeknownst to her, three of her poems have found their way into the hands of Peter Woodburn, senior editor at Atlantic Monthly. The sheer power and beauty of her words inspire the editor to print them, but as his letters of inquiry have been ignored, he travels from Boston to the Berkshires hoping a personal - and unannounced - visit will elicit her consent.

Instead, Sarah is horrified by the thought of having her private reflections published - and no amount of pleading changes her mind. (She's oblivious to the fact that Peter is smitten with her, as well!)

Complications set in when Peter accepts the widow Dulce's invitation to spend the night - and in a weak moment that sends a wrong message, he ends up doing so in her bed.

The estate - and the lives of everyone in it - will never be the same again!

Part romantic comedy and part comedy of manners - with a hint of melodrama mixed in for good measure -director Carla Milarch's production of "Ice Glen" is a slickly staged season opener that unfolds at an invigorating pace. And her exceptional cast couldn't be better.

Yet despite its excellent production values, the show's overall success depends on Ackermann's plot - and that's where some audience members might have a problem.

The romantics among us, I suspect, left the opening night performance totally enthralled. The rest of us, however, might question the characters' actions and motivations.

For starters, how many men do you know - straight men, in particular - have an intensely emotional response to poetry? So much so that he'd pursue the author sight unseen? Not many, as men are visual beasts and we react to what we see, not to what we read. (Except porn, that is!) As such, I suspect many men won't find Peter's initial pursuit of Sarah believable.

Then there's Sarah's sudden conversion during the play's final moments. Only in fairy tales does that happen; here, it doesn't ring true.

And far too often, Ackermann's characters toss intriguing tidbits into a discussion that are never again referenced or explained. (In fact, much of the plot seems to unfold only because it MUST in order to move the story to its desired conclusion; it doesn't flow naturally from its characters.)

Finally, some judicious editing would also be welcomed - especially as it relates to Denby, a character that serves no useful purpose.

But if it's top-notch performances you like, Susan Marie Berg excels as Irish housekeeper Mrs. Roswell, while Kathy Kauffmann has great fun with Dulce - especially in the second act. And Loren Bass, Robin Lewis-Bedz, Will David Young and Chris Korte give the level of performances you expect from these seasoned veterans.

"Ice Glen" Staged Thu.-Sun. at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through Oct. 30. $24.50-$36. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org.

The Bottom Line: A beautifully staged and excellently acted comedy that hinges on how believable you find the story's basic plot.

Review: 'Cancer! The Musical!'

Original musical won't cure cancer, but it sure will tickle your funny bone

Let's face it: A satirical comedy called "Cancer! The Musical!" initially elicits a response something like, "How rude!" Or with images of dancing chemo patients running through your mind, you shake your head and think, "There's nothing funny about cancer!"

But wait a minute: There is, and the proof - singing lab rats doing a rousing kick-line - is on the stage of the coolest theater around, The Abreact Performance Space on the fringe of Detroit's Greektown.

Written by cancer surgeon - and cancer survivor - Dr. Tom Donnellon and Second City veteran Shawn Handlon, this very funny social commentary explores what happens when the needs of cancer patients collide with the financial demands of pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

Trouble begins when word gets out that Dr. Bernard of Munchausen Pharmaceuticals (played with wide-eyed zaniness by Dustin Gardner) has discovered a cure for cancer.

That's not good news for rival Falk and DePeapols Pharmaceuticals. (Say the name fast a few times.) Concerned about corporate profits, company executive Mr. Murphy (recent Wilde Award winner Mike McGettigan) orders a hit on Bernard. Until, that is, he's diagnosed with colon cancer.

But with Bernard on the run, the survival of Annie (Molly McMahon), the potential first human test patient, is jeopardized - much to the dismay of Dr. Harris (Pat Loos) who has fallen in love with his patient.

Can Murphy call off the hired gun? Or will the cure be lost to needless violence and human greed? (Hint: The ending will surprise you!)

And so will the musical itself. For amidst the fun and frivolity are serious discussions about the treatment of cancer patients by cold-hearted medical personnel, government bureaucracy and the disease itself. And the very human side of cancer is also powerfully presented.

But it's the rousing musical numbers by composer John Edwartowski with lyrics by Donnellon, Edwartowski and Handlon that especially stand out. After all, what better way is there to discuss the side effects of chemotherapy than by a lounge lizard played by Chad Kushaba? Or learn your diagnosis from Dr. Beau Jangles (Phred Brown) sung to the tune of "Candy Man"? (Kudos, too, to The Treatment - aka Shoe - for great accompaniment!)

Maybe cancer isn't so scary after all!

"Cancer! The Musical!" Staged Fri.-Sat. at the Abreact Performance Space, 442 E. Lafayette, Detroit, through Oct. 15. Admission by donation. 313-378-5404. http://www.theabreact.com.

The Bottom Line: Okay, so the cast isn't the most musically inclined bunch, but who cares? This fun-filled satire is full of laughs, and laughter IS the best medicine!

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