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Love, loss and backyard connections – ‘Maytag Virgin’

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Love, loss and backyard connections – ‘Maytag Virgin’ (photo by Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – An unconventional love story is playing out on the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

“Maytag Virgin,” written by Audrey Cefaly and directed by Tricia A. Hobbs, is the latest entry in Penobscot Theatre Company’s 48th season. A sweet and charming two-hander, it’s a story about what it means to be in love and the many different paths that can lead us to finding that love we seek. The show runs through Feb. 27.

Playing out over the course of a year, it’s a look at the evolving relationship between two people whose connection begins in the simplest of ways – proximity. They’re new neighbors whose backyards are adjacent, meaning that they are thrust into one another’s orbits. What they do once that shared orbit is entered, however … well, love, like life, is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Jack (Sean Riley) is a high school physics teacher who has just moved to a town in Alabama. His new neighbor is Lizzy (Jewell Noel), an English teacher at the same school. Jack is moving in just as the summer is coming to an end and the new school year is starting; he’s still getting the lay of the land. Lizzy isn’t heading back to school just yet, though – she’s on leave following the tragic death of her husband a short time earlier.

The dynamic is initially one of playful antagonism – each likes the other well enough, but both are guarded, albeit in different ways. Lizzy’s wounds are still relatively fresh, and they cut even deeper than she initially lets on. Jack has suffered his own losses; perhaps not as new as Lizzy’s, put just as deep and only just beginning to scar over. And so, both people are inclined to keep the outside world at arm’s length to protect the internalized fragilities they bear.

Their combativeness – often springing from Jack’s inexplicable decision to keep his clothes dryer on the porch and Lizzy’s exasperation with the presence of said dryer – only serves to accentuate the draw between them. As the months pass, the two find themselves connecting in ways that transcend mere neighborliness (though both make their efforts to paint it as such).

Love – its joys and its sorrows alike – are a constant undercurrent between these two broken hearts. And when Jack uncovers a pile of old letters in the attic from his house’s previous owner, Lizzy’s desire to investigate them offers them yet another perspective on love and relationships – one that may bring them closer together or drive a wedge between them.

Over the course of the year, the fondness between them grows, with each finding moments of comfort in sharing the pain that they have carried with them. But from that pain, something else begins to blossom. Will it reach full bloom? Or wither on the vine? Ultimately, it will come down to whether they can push through the inertia that has left them stalled in place and begin to finally move forward with their lives once more.

It's a perfect time of year for a love story, a bill that “Maytag Virgin” certainly fits. But it isn’t a simple love story. This is a story about two people who, even as they are struggling with the losses of their past and their still-complicated emotions surrounding those losses, find themselves yearning to connect. Neither is clear about the specifics of what they seek and both are bogged down by the morass of their personal histories; however, it is through their interactions with one another that they slowly find themselves climbing from the depths. They might not know exactly what they want (or perhaps are afraid of wanting), but they know that how things are is not how they wish things to be.

That isn’t to say that this is some heavy, ponderous exploration of meaning. “Maytag Virgin” is also extremely funny; the emotional heft is buoyed up by the deftness of the banter between our two protagonists. Audrey Cefaly’s got jokes, people, and they’re good ones. Bits, running gags, one-liners – there’s a lot of joy to be found here.

(Just as one example, I dare you not to laugh when Lizzy busts out one of the funniest meditative mantras you’re ever likely to hear. Funny, but also one many of us might find rather helpful in these trying times.)

One of the joys of a two-hander is that the audience gets to spend so much time with the characters. One of the pitfalls … is that the audience gets to spend so much time with the characters. This type of show makes incredible demands of its cast. It’s just them. There’s nowhere to hide, so you better have some folks up there who can hold the stage.

So let me tell you – Sean Riley and Jewell Noel can HOLD it.

This is one hell of a duo, folks. Riley’s demeanor is pure aw-shucks charm, even as he allows occasional glimpses of the more complicated emotions churning beneath the surface. Noel’s heart is much more on her sleeve; her hidden depths ebb and flow differently. That contrasting energy – Lizzy self-conscious and frantic, Jack low-key and laconic – is a huge part of why the story works. And Noel and Riley’s abilities to embody those respective differences are what gives this show its spark. And you better believe these two spark – the chemistry is palpable from lights up to lights down, charming and awkward and sweet and frustrating. Just wonderful performances.

Hobbs has shown herself to be a talented director before – her work here is a continuation of that trend – but it’s worth noting just how much range she has. I hesitate to use the word “sturdy” – feels a little like damning with faint praise – but the reality is that Hobbs unfailingly crafts a solid foundation upon which the actors can build. No matter the tone or the style, she finds the verisimilitude – the real – and makes sure that we can find it too.

“Maytag Virgin” also continues the lengthy run of outstanding production values we’ve seen from PTC. Scenic designer Chez Cherry has crowded not one, but two houses onto the Opera House stage, resulting in a closeness that causes two ostensibly separate spaces to bleed together in a manner that mirrors the play’s burgeoning central relationship. It’s also a chance for Scout Hough to show her stuff – her talents for shaping spaces translate beautifully from the abstract to this more realistic arena. Subtle shifts in color and intensity move the action forward as clearly as any line of dialogue. Kevin Koski’s knack for building costumes that don’t feel like costumes is put to good use here; everything they wear feels lived-in and real, a vibe that is only accentuated by Meredith Perry’s prop design and the always-solid sound work of Neil Graham.

“Maytag Virgin” is a charming, captivating story of finding love even when you’re not sure you’re ready for it, all brought to vivid life by exceptional direction and design and one hell of a central pairing. Love is in the air at PTC, so why not go and celebrate it?

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 06:03

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