Comic Meditation On Gawky First Love

By Carolyn Hayes

The central character of playwright Don Zolidis' newest work would have you believe, "This is not a love story." But from the joint he-and-she title, to the saccharine meet-cute tropes, to the carefully cresting hopes and expectations, "Miles & Ellie" actively beats back this assertion at every turn. Indeed, under the direction of Guy Sanville, The Purple Rose Theatre Company's world premiere production handily captures the sweet ungainliness of childhood's fumbling first love; yet this delectably sweet and tart comedy also excels by more complicated maneuvers regarding storytelling, memory and misguided protagonists.

The first of the play's two acts hurtles back in time; after racing through a hysterically superfluous introductory scene, it settles on 1991, when the private and self-serious Ellie (Rhiannon Ragland) fell for grungy idealist Miles (Rusty Mewha). Like many high school relationships, theirs was a product of ample free time but little alone time, unfolding primarily in Ellie's living room under the noses of her dizzy, inappropriate mom (Michelle Mountain), her talking-points conservative politician dad (Bill Simmons), and her sexually frank nemesis of an older sister (Cheryl Turski).

But the play isn't exactly set in the past; rather, it's more like a re-creation as seen through Ellie's perspective. This is reinforced by narration from fourth-wall-breaking adult Ellie, as well as by a cheeky romantic comedy tone and candid dips into storytelling shortcuts and tropes. The design follows suit by eschewing detail and detritus: Bartley H. Bauer's setting provides a rigidly symmetric blank slate upon which lights by Reid G. Johnson can play fancifully or nostalgically as the gliding transitions demand. Some period-specific humor ekes its way in through Tom Whalen's angsty-cheesy sound design, dated early-'90s groaners by costumer Ragland and wig designer Dawn Rivard, and Danna Segrest's subtle but ever spot-on properties.

The heightened concept proves ideal for vividly recalling the trumped-up horrors of adolescence for the viewer, not to mention - thanks to the chemistry and commitment of Ragland and Mewha - those unmistakable, insatiable teenage appetites. (Physical comedy is rampant throughout, but it's never better than in the couple's escalating bouts of needy, awkward pawing.) Yet however juvenile, single-minded, or mismatched their relationship, the pair grounds it in real affection and respect that raises the stakes and sets up a dreaded, appropriately childish fall.

For Miles and Ellie's pioneering foray into romance and sexual dalliance does end; the play leaves no doubt. This allows the first act to experiment with how the expected story is told, which lets Sanville and company create a partnership so vibrant and vague, it's likely to give viewers flashbacks to their own tortured, doomed first relationships. Moreover, in contrast to the anticipated trajectory of the first act, the second feels thrillingly open-ended and uncertain. Set in the present some two decades hence, a newly divorced Ellie returns home for Thanksgiving and braces herself to see Miles again for the first time in ages.

Here, a combination of keen writing and sparkling performances propels the characters instantly forward, efficiently demonstrating the people they've become. The outlandish changes, including the pickled delight that is Mountain's coping good wife, are well justified and believable - especially through the eyes of an indignant, not-so-grown-up Ellie, who chiefly sees in her family their flaws and their pity. It is by this attention to narration and tone that the play comes to its late and heartfelt examination of key relationships and the shortcomings that sabotage them. It's a marvelous sideways approach to character study and actualization that drops gravitas into the comedy mix and gives the story well-earned resonance, particularly by Turski's apparent extremes opposite Ragland's ingrained resentments.

If this "Miles & Ellie" is not a love story, it's but a trick of semantics, because it is that and more. This production takes a glibly humorous approach to a subtly daring text, and although not every risk pays off perfectly, the entertainment value is unquestionably high. Viewers are likely to be sold on the strength of the play's awkward teenaged romance alone, which is formidable, but the later payoffs are no less amusing, and their revelations unify story and storyteller in a purely fascinating way.


'Miles & Ellie'

The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through Aug. 31. 1 hour, 45 minutes. $18.50-42. 734-433-7673.

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