It’s funny, but when you give talented actors well-written material and put them into an environment that screams Off-Broadway the result is a marvelous and intimate evening of good theater. No, not good theater, but great theater. This is certainly the case with Joan Ackermann’s 30th anniversary production of her first full-length play, "Zara Spook and Other Lures." Written in 1988 it has only the occasional reference to its own time and as such emerges as an almost timeless look at the independent spirit, the love that hurts, the lure, or lures, of fly-fishing and the indomitable spirit of the far west with its indelible impression on the seemingly unimpressionable.
The six regional actors who inhabit this Acker-world are among the finest in the local arena. With such good material and a guiding hand that has seen the play through its many permutations and productions this show - caught in the middle of its current run - rewards the audience member with sensations and delights, comedy and near-tragedy, information and enlightenment. I knew very little about fly fishing and women’s competition in the sport and now I know something more. But education on a topic is not what holds the center of this stagework; that is greater knowledge of what is in the hearts of women who compete with a friendliness and supportive nature at their core. This is a very special piece!
As the oldest member of the trio of sportswomen, Ramona, Ariel Bock gives her all. She has hilarious scenes, tender moment, two lengthy and enthralling monologues and a "death" scene that engrosses and touches the observer. Ramona is being stalked by her own husband, a man she has deserted and yet never left. She wants him to come to her, and when he does - in a way that is shocking - she makes her feelings very clear, confused as they are. Bock makes it all seem natural and real. She approaches this character from behind, gets up inside her and moves her forward with a unique naturalism that is completely her own. She is not acting. She is fusing. She is enthralling.
Her friend Teale is played by Stephanie Hedges. Teale is the most conflicted character in the play. A competition winner who is not among the participants, her deep sensitivity and her deeper longing to be back in the game make this woman a fascinater. When asthma comes a-calling, she makes one stage crossing into a memorable wordless mono-drama. Hedges carries this off wonderfully well.
Teale's best friend, Evelyn, is given one hell of a good realization by Julie Webster. The play documents Evelyn’s first major fishing competition and also clarifies her romance with her live-in boyfriend, Talmadge. Webster’s performance gets under your skin. You almost want to scratch her away, she’s that good at playing this woman who suffers a distinct traumatic disarray of the mind. As she explains what’s happening to her you realize that Evelyn is not just a nervous Nellie, she is a woman struggling with realities that have a depth that is staggering. Webster gets to this with simplicity and directness and it’s a pleasure to watch her grow through the play.
Talmadge is played with the utmost sincerity and simplicity by Ryan Marchione who seems unable to make a wrong choice in this role. His Talmadge is devoted and gentle and just assertive enough to be an annoyance to Evelyn though never to us. He makes it easy to see why Evelyn loves him and also why he so disconcerts her at the worst possible moments.
The two actors who truly shine through all of this glow are Thom Whaley as Mel, Ramona’s simmeringly slow bi-polar husband, and Deann Halper as Margery a big-city woman out west for a mental health adventure. Whaley has a dark edge to his performance and with the instability written into the part there are times when he actually seems to pose a threat to the well-being of the audience. His stance and his eyes are confrontational. His voice is complicit and yet reassuring. He provides insights into other characters more readily than into his own and Whaley makes the most of that right into his final scene when, almost fairy-tale-like, this anomalous creation becomes a New Mexican Prince Charming.
Halper, on the other hand, begins the play as a nervous, almost hysterical creation unable to confirm that she has conformed to a societal rigor that makes her uncomfortable. Her second act scenes are transformational and hilarious as she moves through the alternating stages of denial, delight and divorce from reality. When she sweeps herself off the stage with an unseen broom she leaves behind a trail of pixie dust and a human lust for better futures. It’s a perfect performance.
Ackermann has directed her own play with perception. She has worked with this talented corps of actors to the ultimate betterment of the play. She is a fortunate talent, surrounded by talent and both equally supportive of one another. Maia Robbins-Zust proves she is one of the best local talents in lighting design providing heat, providing moon, providing water sparkle, all as required. George Veale’s costumes work well for these characters. Ackermann is fortunate to have these artists to work with along with the rest of her well-appointed company.
Mixed Company is a year-round professionally oriented theater company that will make you forget you’re on the second floor of an old grain-barn and maybe an even older motel in the Berkshires. You’ll feel like you’re in New York City, at an off-Broadway playhouse where surprises await you at every turn. And this is quite a turn to be taking.
Whaley and Ryan Marchione; photo provided
Deann Halper; photo provided
Zara Spoon and Other Lures plays at Mixed Company, 37 Rosseter Street, Great Barrington, MA through April 28, playing Thursday through Saturday nights at 8. For information and tickets call 413-528-2320.