Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TALKING HEADS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Talking Heads was originally a series of several monologues, written by British playwright Alan Bennett, for the BBC beginning in 1988.  The series was adapted for the stage in 1991 and premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex, England.  The selected monologues for this engrossing presentation by STLAS include, "Nights in the Gardens of Spain", "A Chip in the Sugar", and "Bed Among the Lentils".  This trio of monologues, while laced with humor, also share common threads of repression and isolation.

"Nights in the Gardens of Spain" features Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Rosemary, a gardening enthusiast who immediately sucks us in as she relates the events surrounding a shooting that took place in her quiet suburb.  The murderer was her neighbor, Fran, who shot her abusive husband.  Stuck in a passionless marriage with a man who ignores her, Rosemary becomes friends with Fran, and confides in us the story of Fran's trial, conviction, and prison time, where she visited her as often as she could.  While Rosemary's husband's primary concern is his determination to move them both to Spain, Rosemary and Fran's friendship deepens, and Rosemary learns more about the truth of Fran's marriage, as well as the proclivities of her own husband.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend (Rosemary).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"A Chip in the Sugar", introduces us to Graham Whittaker (Alan Knoll), a middle-aged bachelor with some mental health issues who is living with and dependent upon his forgetful elderly mother.  His comfortable cohabitation is threatened when his mom runs into an old flame called Mr. Frank Turnbull.  Graham dislikes him immediately.  When Mr. Turnbull starts taking Graham's mother out on dates, and eventually proposes marriage, suggesting that Graham move out into a hostel, Graham is completely inconsolable.  His devotion to his mom is sincere, but without her to fuss over, and no distractions to keep him from examining his own longings, Graham is adrift, until he finds out a little dirt about Mr. Turnbull that returns his world back to normal.

Alan Knoll (Graham Whittaker).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In the last act of the evening, Susan (Glynis Bell) lets us in on life as a vicar's wife in "Bed Among the Lentils".  She resents being referred to as "Mrs. Vicar", and the associated duties that come along with the title.  She's also annoyed with the female busybodies of the church who fawn over her husband.  She calls them, "the fan club".  But she does like her sherry.  Her debt at the local market drives her to an off-licence shop to buy her alcohol run by a young beautiful Asian man called Ramesh.  He's married, but his wife is not permitted to join him in England because she is under 16.  Well, Susan finds solace in more than just the sherry she purchases from him -- she also finds it in his bed, where she finally experiences passion and physical pleasure.

Glynis Bell (Susan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Bennett's portraits are keenly drawn.  Narratives about the everyday slowly get peeled away to reveal each character's damage.  Although there is a definite pattern to the monologues, director, Lana Pepper (also responsible for the straightforward costume design), picked a nice combination for the evening.  They play out on an uncomplicated and unobtrusive set, courtesy of Cristie Johnston, with low, evocative lighting by Jonathan Zelezniak.  These monologues fit well in the intimate space of the Gaslight Theater, but for the actors, who are well up to the task, there's nowhere to hide.

As Rosemary, Townsend alternates from the highs of a growing friendship to the lows of her discoveries and a stinging indifference by the end to great affect.  Even as Knoll makes us laugh at Graham's arrogant attitudes toward this "common" intruder who challenges his relationship with his mom, there is also a desolation in his face that tugs at you.  Bell probably has the most humor to be had from her piece, and she mines every nugget of it, though her story is also one of despair and longing.

It's a wonderfully satisfying night of theatre with excellent performances that shouldn't be missed.  This special two week engagement is only playing until the 26th.


Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Lana Pepper
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through May 26 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Elizabeth Ann Townsend* (Rosemary), Alan Knoll* (Graham Whittaker) and Glynis Bell* (Susan).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak; costume design by Lana Pepper; sound design by Milton Zoth; stage manager, Sarah Lynne Holt.

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