Across the Great Divide

What right do theatergoers have to expect two very different individuals--folks of vastly divergent age, experience, political, and religious sensibilities--to cross the chasm and embrace? Of course, we've come not just to expect such a thing to occur on stage, but to view it as a ticketbuyer's privilege, if only because we don't get to see it often enough outside the theater. But it's still a tricky bit of business, utterly dependent on the abilities of the actors to compete against real time, to lay the emotional groundwork for a convincing conciliatory relationship with an intermission wedged in between.

The movies have a much easier time of uniting the disparate, or at least they get to care less about authenticity, and can employ all manner of technical gimmicks to compensate for feelings that have been fudged. (Not to mention the fact that onscreen sentiment and contrivance is easier to swallow, and has come, for some moviegoers, to seem like a right itself.) There's only so much a costume or set or lighting designer for the stage can do to propel a bickering pair into each other's arms; the actors have to pace themselves and each other to draw all of us along on that crooked track to mutual empathy.

I never think of design as being an especially emphatic aspect of Fort Worth's Allied Theatre Group, if only because the Stage West location is surrounded on three sides by audience members. The result is that the performers always appear to be among us; almost anywhere you sit, as you watch the players, you see other patrons silently watching too. A designer simply cannot intervene in such perilously intimate circumstances. Without a chance of rescue from an outside party, the actors have to be slick and ingratiating enough to hold our attention even as they drive deeper into the characters to give us more than entertainment--at least, those are the ambitions of Allied Theatre Group. That they almost always succeed makes this Fort Worth company a sterling showcase for actors who have the chops to participate. When you shine under the Stage West lights, your performance flares a little brighter, a little longer in the memory than any other North Texas company.

Such is currently the case with Visiting Mr. Green, a re-staging, literally and figuratively, of the perennial odd couple equation. Not only have we seen this arrangement in countless other permutations, but audiences are being offered a brief second revival of this script just a couple months after it played to frequent standing ovations in the same house. It's become a trend for playwright Jeff Baron: This, his first play, ran for more than a year in its debut New York production, has been staged across Europe and in South Africa, and recently enjoyed a reading at the United Nations. The success of Mr. Baron's dramatic comedy has less to do with people across the world being starved for the bridging of rifts than that the fractious encounters he relates between an elderly Orthodox Jew and a young gay professional are slow, cautious, incomplete in their healing. They end not with the differences unresolved but acknowledged and accepted. They apex not with unconditional love--the kid doesn't don a yarmulke, nor does the old man join PFLAG--but with a rigorously earned respect. Sententiousness is skirted, something like wisdom is flirted with, and we get a verisimilitude of what may be humanity's best hope for survival. That's the kind of theater where small, even anticlimactic events get your blood pumping.

Certainly, Allied Theatre's version of Visiting Mr. Green is as flushed with the force of quotidian life as the playwright could ask from any production. Director Jim Covault guides Jeffrey Schmidt as Ross, a tightly wound New York executive who is court-ordered to make weekly visitations to frail Mr. Green (Jerry Russell), a widower whom Ross almost ran over with his car. The young man sees that Green has stopped opening his mail and eats only infrequently. They attempt superficial conversation, but because each gets on the other's nerves almost immediately and neither can escape, the interactions can't help but get more honest. Mr. Green maintains Jewish law with punishing strictness, while Ross is non-observant. Both reveal gradually more intense scraps of information about their families, and it is in keeping with the show's canniness that Ross' revelation of his homosexuality is offered reluctantly, almost accidentally, and with some impatience, after Mr. Green has spent an inordinate amount of time pressuring him about why he doesn't have a wife or a girlfriend. Jeff Schmidt perfectly essays a guy in a tender stage of self-acceptance; we know there's no particular reason to offer this information under such a formal arrangement, except that Ross has heard such questions since he was a teenager and is sick of dodging them.

Like some fiery-eyed Southern Baptist, Jerry Russell takes the total immersion route to his characterization of Mr. Green, and floats easily to the surface with a shuffling, frowning, squinty-eyed, hard-hearted octogenarian whom we'd never confuse with lovable. That's the beauty of his performance and Allied Theatre's entire show; neither succeeds because of how you want the world to be. They help you see that--when people are willing to relent a little--it's not always too bad the way it is.