At a time when the light at the end of the tunnel must be an oncoming train, Lamb’s Players Theatre is staging Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s harbinger of hope. Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, The Light in the Piazza tells a gentle story of star-crossed lovers, beneath which lurks a fierce, combative spirit waging war on negativity.
Piazza reads its audience like an opinion poll. It anticipates objections and counters them on the spot. Your trouble, you can hear the musical say, is you’re too rational. You don’t believe the impossible can happen. And — the musical pushes hardest here — that the impossible can continue to happen.
According to Piazza, being rational’s the gravest sin of all. Outside the musical, it’s one few commit these days, since the “real” world has lost its mind.
But we’re in 1953. Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara vacation in Italy. As they crane their necks to admire the great sculptures, a gust of wind whisks Clara’s straw hat into the blue Florentine sky. It floats down into the hands of young Fabrizio Naccarelli, a 20-year-old apprentice in his father’s shop. Fabrizio returns the hat to Clara and bada-BING: they fall in love as fast as Dante did for Beatrice. Did the hat find the boy by mere chance — a one-in-a-trillion shot — or by some gossamer design etched in the Book of Love?
“Now is I am happiness,” says Fabrizio in the best English he can muster. And Clara reciprocates. Neither knows it, but they are as cursed as Romeo and Juliet. When she was 10, Clara fell from a Shetland pony. She’s now 26, but her mental and emotional development were arrested around age 12. But Margaret becomes convinced that love has made Clara blossom. She will grow to adulthood after all! And Margaret, whose marriage flowered in Florence but soured in Winston-Salem, doesn’t want her daughter to face a limited life. “Why can’t we hope for once?”
But that means not telling Fabrizio’s family about Clara’s “special” condition (the entire musical turns on the word — which didn’t have this sense in 1953 — from which all complications ensue). But if the boy and his family reject Clara, she will shut down once and for all.
The Lamb’s Players production boasts a golden-brown, piazza-like set with a seven-piece orchestra tucked inside; Italian silk finery; and some quality voices (but some not). Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s performance as Margaret, however, makes the show definitely worth seeing. Her South Carolinian twang’s just right. And her emotional range runs, you could say, from bass to soprano. She’s convinced, she’s torn, she’s controlling as all get-out; she’s setting free.
Gilmour Smyth sings three songs remarkably: “Dividing Day” asks when Margaret’s husband distanced himself from her (“We are here together, but I have had dividing day”); “The Beauty Is,” an awakening song about when you realize that “someone could be looking for someone like you”; and “Fable,” which asks, then denies, that love is merely “just a painting on a ceiling” or a “children’s fairy tale.”
Gilmour Smyth communicates these songs so effectively that, sure, you say, errant straw hats will always find the proper hands, and maybe someone out there seeks your heart. And maybe there is hope after all, some, a soupçon — at least while the music lasts.
The Light in the Piazza’s a “wait a sec” show. It casts a persuasive spell. Once outside it (and Craig Lucas is such a smart playwright you know this is part of the plan), questions arise, and second thoughts, and the musical actually grows and shifts.
Neil LaBute’s In a Dark, Dark House creates similar postshow entanglements. You leave with a reasonably secure explanation for a case of horrific child abuse. By the time you reach your car, the “house” in the title has grown even darker — and not the tree house Terry and Drew played in as boys.
Drew always looked up to his older brother. Terry, he says, is “the real man, well-adjusted, normal.” Drew’s in rehab, unearthing repressed memories. But he has the trappings of success (including a $1.8-million house), and Terry’s an ex-con who moves from job to job. As the brothers probe deeper into the past, the play opens like a geological dig. Every time one gets ready to exit a scene (and they do often), the other says, in effect, “No, no, there’s more.” A lot more. And the light dims further in LaBute’s decaying piazza.
Dark Dark is one of LaBute’s most carefully crafted, internal, and realistic works. Ion Theatre and director Glenn Paris have honored it with a precise, scrape-to-the-heart staging. Claudio Raygoza’s put-upon Terry, Rachael VanWormer’s subtle, 16-year-old Jennifer, and especially Jeffrey Jones’s volatile Terry perform as if probing a field for mines — and exploding some by accident.
LaBute’s become one of America’s grimmest, least-flinching playwrights. An interviewer asked him if ours is a “Hobbesian” world (in Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes said that life is just “nasty, brutish, and short”). We’re stuck in one if we let ourselves be, LaBute replied. “Humans find it so easy to just slide by, to take the road that’s slightly easier, to make the choice that’s just a bit more selfish or self-serving, that we end up creating our own Hobbesian universe.”
The Light in the Piazza, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Season Duffy, Chanlon Jay Kaufman, Stephen Godwin, Spencer Rowe, Teressa Byrne, Sandy Campbell, David Cochran Heath, Lance Arthur Smith, Erin Byron-Brunton, Jon Lorenz, Beth Obregon, Tom Zohar; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound, Patrick Duffy. Musical direction, G. Scott Lacy, Charlie Reuter; choreography, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through November 2; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.
In a Dark Dark House, Ion Theatre, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley
Directed by Glenn Paris; cast: Jeffrey Jones, Claudio Raygoza, Rachael VanWormer; scenic and costume design, Paris; lighting and sound, Raygoza.
Playing through November 2; Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m. 619-374-6894.