In the midst of the cold and wintry Washington weather, Vienna Theatre Company’s production of Proposals offers warmth and laughter with a visit to the Hines family cabin during a summer day in late 1957. Written by prolific playwright Neil Simon, the romantic comedy/drama examines the relationships of Burt Hines, an ailing, former workaholic, his 20-something daughter Josie, and Clemma Diggins, who has served the family for more than twenty years as housekeeper, cook, nanny, and confidant. It is a story of love lost, new love found, forgiveness, and redemption.
We are introduced to the family by Clemma, beautifully played by Lisa Hill-Corley. While the role offers little in the way of emotional depth in the first act, thankfully that isn’t true in the second act where Hill-Corley really shines with the introduction of her husband, Lewis Barnett (Sidney Davis). After deserting Clemma seven years earlier, Lewis is hoping to reconcile following a series of setbacks. The chemistry between Hill-Corley and Davis is palpable and the relationship feels familiar and authentic. We see the tension and strain from years of struggle and heartache.
Clemma’s employer, Burt Hines (Eric Storck), is a TV salesman who has built a chain of stores by working long hours. He is now retired due to health problems. He and his wife Annie (Allison Shelby) are divorced; she has remarried and is living abroad. Josie blames her mother for leaving her father. Following his two heart attacks, Burt’s deepest desire is to see his ex-wife and daughter reconcile.
When we first meet Josie (Shannon Madden), she has just broken off her engagement to Ken Norman (Kevin Comer). We soon discover that she has feelings for Ray Dolenz (Michael Schwartz), a past summer fling who is also her former fiancé’s best friend. The situation becomes further entangled when two more characters make their appearances: Ray’s ditzy girlfriend Sammi (Sarah Hayes) and Vinnie Bavasi (Eric Sampson), a guy with whom Josie once danced.
The ensemble cast is quite good and I appreciated Suzanne Maloney’s smart direction. As she said in a recent article on DCMTA, she wanted the cast to just tell the story and “let the humor bubble to the top instead of becoming a driving force.” Maloney’s approach keeps the characters from becoming clichés and the humor from going over the top. And she succeeds beautifully.
Eric Storck plays the father facing his mortality with just the right mix of pathos and determination. His portrayal was so quiet, in fact, that I thought I was not terribly invested in the character until I realized how much I cared during a pivotal scene in the second act.
Shannon Madden’s performance makes us feel that we have known her character Josie for many years. She navigates the wide range of emotions with earnestness, energy, and sensitivity. We dislike her mother on her arrival and it is a tribute to Allison Shelby’s acting that we grow to like the woman who has caused her daughter so much pain.
Of the three men vying for Josie’s attention, Kevin Comer’s performance as the ex-fiancé is forceful, yet vulnerable. We feel bad for him although we seem to know he really isn’t right for her. The role of Vinnie, the quintessential Miami mob wannabe, showcases Eric Sampson’s talent for playing laugh-out-loud funny while at the same time letting us know his character also has feelings. His colorful misuse of the English language could steal many a scene, but Sampson, along with Maloney’s direction, keeps it in check and makes it work well. We’re glad Vinnie has invited himself to the mountains.
My favorite thing about Community Theater is the fact that most of the cast and crew have day jobs and are participating in the show on their own time and with no pay. It’s fun to watch the landscape business owner (Storck) and the engineer and Ph.D. candidate (Comer) be transformed. It is also a testament to the hard work and professionalism of the entire cast and crew that this production is so well done.
Most astonishing, is the set design by Leta FitzHugh. The cabin exterior is so impressive and homey that I want to spend the summer there. I especially appreciated the screen door that slammed when it closed and made me nostalgic for my grandma’s house. Kudos to FitzHugh, Master Carpenter John Vasko and the entire set construction and painting crews for a job well done. Lighting Designer Tom Epps skillfully added to the sense of place and time. Sound Designer Jonathan Powers, a software engineer by day, composed peaceful background music that matched the tranquil setting. We just need the sound of the chirping birds to complete the picture. Producer Laura Fargotstein rounds out her team with the talents of Costume Designer Patricia Tinder, Master Electrician Michael O’Connor, and Props Mistress Rachel Comer.
If I have any nit to pick with the show, it is with the author, Neil Simon, considered one of the finest writers of comedy in American literary history. Proposals is Simon’s 30th play, although it also had one of the shortest runs on Broadway. Simon’s strength is comedy rather than character and in this play, he does a disservice to his characters by keeping them too shallow and light just when we want to go deeper. He scripts a moment in the second act that had me scratching my head and thinking “What-the-heck?” But that’s just a small nit.
Proposals is entertaining, heartwarming, and fun. I suggest you’all accept my proposal: Escape the winter gloom and journey to Vienna Theatre Company’s production of Proposals.
Running Time: 2 hours. with one 15-minute intermission.
Proposals plays through February 10, 2013 at Vienna Theatre Company at The Vienna Community Center – 120 Cherry Street SE, in Vienna, VA. Tickets may be purchased at the Vienna Community Center any time the Center is open or prior to the performance by cash or check. Tickets may also be reserved in advance by sending an email to VTCshows@yahoo.com at least 2 hours before showtime. For more information about purchasing or reserving tickets, go to the VTC website.
‘Proposals’ at Vienna Theatre Company: ‘Wrestling with Neil Simon in the 21st Century’ by Suzanne Maloney.