Children are afraid of monsters under the bed. Adults of a certain age are afraid of winding up alone. “The Last Romance” is a carefully-crafted play by Joe DePietro that stares into the face of this very real nemesis – showing us how thee different characters strive to keep loneliness at bay.
This Purple Rose Theatre production, directed by Resident Artist and staff member Michelle Mountain, is a thoughtful comedy that feels remarkably honest. The featured characters are “seniors” of varying ages – but there are no jokes about canes, walkers or hip-replacements. The story is relatively simple, but truly compelling. It’s a love triangle of sorts, featuring Ralph Bellini, an aging widower, Rose Tagliatelle, the younger sister who takes care of him, and Carol Reynolds, the woman Ralph meets at the dog park and is inexplicably taken with. Each of these three characters have lost a mate under trying circumstances. Each has fallen into a strict routine that helps them cope with loss and the fear of loneliness. And during the course of the play, each is pulled outside of their comfort zone in a way that irrevocably changes their point of view.
Will David Young (the Stage Manager in PRTC’s “Our Town”) plays Ralph, an insightful, engaging, witty and vital 80-year-old man. He has never outgrown a youthful passion for the opera and speaks fondly of the time he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. Ralph’s alter ego – “The Young Man” that Ralph might have been – is physically present on stage as an operatic tenor who performs moving arias that provide charming context for each scene as it unfolds. (PRTC tucks a helpful translation of the arias into the program, which is not essential to an understanding of the play but does enhance one's enjoyment of this production.) The Young Man with the big voice is played alternately by Andrew Buckshaw and Ryan Dooley. Carol admits that she knows nothing about opera, and asks Ralph why the singers are often fat. Ralph explains that opera is about people with big emotions and big love stories that require big music to contain it all. Indeed, Will David Young gives us a Ralph Bellini whose aging frame can scarcely contain his burgeoning enthusiasm.
Franette Liebow creates Carol as an elegant but cautious woman whose husband suffered a debilitating stroke. Carol now pours all of her affection into a “rat like dog” that she has rescued from its own hell of crippling loneliness. It’s clear that the dog, Peaches, has rescued her as well, and that Carol works very hard to fight off loneliness and preserve a quiet form of dignity. (Peaches is played alternately by Blue Belle and Tucker – both charming Chihuahuas.)
Priscilla Lindsay is Ralph’s overprotective, overbearing sister, Rose. Rose hasn’t seen her husband since he left her for another woman 22 years ago – although he lives in the area and has written to ask for a divorce. Rose, a good Catholic, will have none of it, and so she lives with her brother and cooks, cleans and cares for him. An incompetent actor would be content to present this character as a two-dimensional shrew, but Lindsay mines this script for clues that reveal much more.
In fact, Michelle Mountain’s handling of this play is warm with affection for the characters that shows empathy and respect in equal measure – it is never trite nor condescending. And it is perfectly paced. Unlike more manic comedies, with plots that shoot like a hydroplane down the river while barely skimming its surface, “The Last Romance” effortlessly tacks back and forth until we are surprised to find ourselves safely in the harbor.
Design for this production includes set by Vincent Mountain, properties by Danna Segrest, costumes by Rhiannon Ragland, lighting by Reid G. Johnson, sound by Tom Whalen and stage managed by Stephanie Buck.
This is a lovely, finely-crafted production that adults of any age will find deeply satisfying. And eventually we discover that The Young Man with the big voice may be more than Ralph’s alter ego – for his is the siren call of hope for one last romance that each of these characters, and perhaps each of us, is drawn to.
“The Last Romance” runs at The Purple Rose Theatre Company through Saturday, August 30, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket reservations can be made by calling The Purple Rose Theatre Company Box Office at (734) 433-7673 or online. All performances will be held at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, Michigan 48118.