Sad, sad song

Perhaps the biggest deficiency of Dallas theater is the tendency to cast performers against type. The pool of committed actors in this town is small, and chances are if you think so-and-so would be just perfect for this role, he or she is already working in someone else's production. Sometimes choosing a less appropriate actor results in a wonderful revelation; there are few pleasures more exciting than having a performer argue you out of your negative preconceptions with an insightful performance. But sometimes it just results in an acute case of miscasting, which can prove mildly distracting or fatally annoying. Having a nationally famous drama program like Southern Methodist University's helps restock the pond, but even so, you can run into problems with a 25-year-old Lady Bracknell or a Krapp with lingering adolescent acne.

Generally speaking, my attitude is this is theater, folks: If you are talented and disciplined enough to find some truth in a part that is 100 percent unlike you in type and temperament, then I'll surrender my disbelief. Hell, I'm already sitting in a church or a basement pretending that the comic and tragic lives unfolding on stage are real (whatever that means).

All this talk is by way of introduction to what can happen during the reverse, when a show is full of perfect marriages between actor and role: The production rolls onto the scene with the force of a thunderhead. Theatre Quorum's staging of Serenading Louie, the Dallas premiere of Lanford Wilson's very bleak drama of marital disintegration, is as seamless a show as I've seen in a long time. That sounds like faint praise, until you see this startling production and realize there is nothing that you, as a theatergoer, must ignore or compensate for: No wrinkles, no faded spots, no rips, no stains are evident in this vivid portrait of four successful middle-aged people shipwrecked on the jagged rocks of infidelity.

The four actors hand you their performances like big, colorfully wrapped boxes: Open them, and inside you find tangled emotions and failed good intentions and thwarted best efforts. The paradoxical beauty of theater is that the better the sorry flotsam and jetsam of our lives is captured, the more energized and purified we feel. It's the same for anyone who has an intimate relationship with the blues. When I listen to Bessie Smith sing, she is singing for all the heavy sins of my life, and I could float away like a hummingbird. When I watched the sublime cast of Serenading Louie play characters who face grave failings in themselves and their spouses, I had to hang on to my seat to keep from levitating.

Of course, director Cynthia Hestand deserves much credit, both for the very personal, poignant performances she coaxed out of her actors and for keeping Lanford Wilson's script at the back of her mind all these years. The play may be more than 23 years old, but there is no statute of limitations on the kind of sorrow it renders with a gentle touch.

Anybody who's ever been in a relationship that's nosediving, but is too afraid to admit it, will recognize Gabby (Angela Wilson), the insecure wife who must chatter constantly to keep the ominous silence at bay. Or Mary (Cindee Mayfield), the confident and charming spouse who's hidden her discontent so long behind a well-groomed cool, she's starting to freeze to death. Have you ever looked around and found yourself alienated from your mate to the point where his or her touch repulses you? Then you've been in the shoes of Gabby's husband, Alex (Dennis Millegan), a Washington, D.C., lawyer who's pondering an appointment to high office--that is, pondering whether Gabby will come along with him to that appointment.

How about loving someone with an unreasonable intensity that turns to desperation when you discover that same someone is cheating on you? Then you'll recognize Mary's husband, Carl (Carl Savering), the self-made construction developer who finds a terrible solution you hopefully won't relate to.

If Mayfield, Millegan, Savering, and Wilson were a classical quartet, they'd be playing the storm-dark strains of Shostakovich in a household concert. As it is, with their shimmering talents pooled into an acting ensemble, they prove that theater is as liquid and purely emotional an art form as music. Don't you dare miss Serenading Louie. After this weekend, all those sad, lovely notes will fade away.

Serenading Louie runs through March 27. Call (972) 216-8131.

Ooh, baby, it's a Wilde world
It seems unlikely that anyone who has an interest in seeing Theatre Three's Southwest premiere of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde would be a rabid homophobe. You suspect the injustice of Wilde's 1895 conviction and hard-labor imprisonment for the "gross indecency of sodomy" has already been recognized by most audience members before the house lights go down. Not that this kind of in-crowd sympathy translates to real social change--just ask the three consenting adult males who were imprisoned, convicted, and fined on sodomy charges last year in Houston. But it can make for an evening of smothering self-congratulation in the theater when people believe they are striking a blow for a progressive cause simply by paying 20 bucks to see a play about persecution.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jimmy Fowler