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PTC’s ‘Ripcord’ a thrilling comedic ride

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From left: Danielle Kennedy, Brad LaBree, Jennifer Shepard, Allen Adams and Sara Morsey in a scene from "Ripcord." From left: Danielle Kennedy, Brad LaBree, Jennifer Shepard, Allen Adams and Sara Morsey in a scene from "Ripcord." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR - As part of its 45th season, Penobscot Theatre Company presents “Ripcord,” a comedy written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Bari Newport. The show runs through March 31 at the Bangor Opera House.

David Lindsay-Abaire is well-known in contemporary American dramatic literature and has received acclaim for several works in the past, perhaps most notably with Tony-nominated “Good People” and Rabbit Hole,” the Pulitzer Prize winner in 2007. Comedy and tragedy frequently run hand-in-hand in his works, and “Ripcord” is no exception. Its comedy is borne from characters who have known hardship, loss, and pain. In this way, the characters always feel grounded in reality, no matter how absurd that reality may be at times.

Abby Binder (Danielle Kennedy) lives in the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, and she likes her privacy. She keeps busy by watering her plants, reading her books, and making sure that no roommates ever stick around for too long. She’s been pretty successful but seems to have met her match in the room’s latest occupant, Marilyn Dunne (Sara Morsey). Marilyn’s sweet, sunny disposition is just a little too saccharine for Abby’s taste, so she goes to caretaker Scotty (Allen Adams) to see if Marilyn can be reassigned to another room.

Scotty agrees to see what he can do, but only on the condition that Abby attend a haunted house that he and his friends have put together. After being chased around by a terrifying clown (Ben Layman) with nary a scream, Abby reveals to Marilyn that she doesn’t get scared. This inspires a wager to determine Marilyn’s fate in the room: whether Marilyn can scare Abby before Abby can anger Marilyn.

After Abby plays a prank on Marilyn involving Marilyn’s daughter Colleen (Jennifer Shepard) and son-in-law Derek (Brad LaBree), it becomes apparent that things are about to get very personal. The attempts to win the bet escalate quickly … all the way to cruising altitude. But how far will they both go to win? And who will get hurt along the way?

The preview audience definitely engaged with this production. Laughter in anticipation of the bizarre twists and turns was intermingled with gasps of surprise. The show’s premise is strange and its machinations stranger, but Lindsay-Abaire comes through with his trademark love for all characters, no matter how broken. Audiences will find something of themselves and their family members here - lovingly lampooned or genuinely cherished … or maybe a little bit of both.

“Ripcord” requires engaging principals and a versatile supporting cast. Kennedy’s Abby is the requisite antihero. We see her make hurtful choices over the course of the show, but we still root for her to conquer her own pain. Kennedy brings endearing crankiness tempered by heart. Conversely, Marilyn is impossibly sunshiny for these cynical days, but Morsey comes alive when Marilyn’s impish prankster nature is revealed, as well as the reasons she may have developed a Pollyanna-ish facade. Although stories of odd couples are nothing new (and in fact directly referenced by the show’s marketing material), there are reasons for their quirks, making these personality clashes more satisfying to the audience.

In the supporting cast, Adams’ Scotty is warm and enthusiastic, but not entirely naive. While he is often the straight man to Kennedy and Morsey’s antics, there are some standout scenes where he gets to leverage his comedic prowess. Layman, LaBree, and Shepard each play multiple roles, from comic relief to family dynamic foils. Layman wields a confident, menacing swagger the first time we see him, and heartbroken intensity in the last. LaBree’s physical comedy continues to be some of the strongest in PTC’s recent seasons; the gamut of his voice work is also delightful. And Shepard has a way of turning a phrase, taking words that might be inherently funny but somehow making them unexpected - and even funnier. Newport has cast well; the roller-coaster tone of the show needs performers who are pitch-perfect comedians while still believable in the moments of dramatic demand.

Of course, the cast only makes up part of a production. Kevin Koski’s costumes help fully realize the characters. Lighting by Jess Fialko and sound by Sean McGinley are as vital as the set pieces themselves in establishing the more representational spaces when we venture outside of the main set. Designed by Patrick Rizzotti, the retirement home bedroom where most of the action takes place is a faithful recreation in every detail.

The show’s multiple large-scale transitions pose a big challenge for the crew, and visible crew en scene may not be to every viewer’s taste. The set pieces for the outside scenes also can feel a little surreal in contrast to the hyper-realistic retirement home. These minor concerns – if you can even call them concerns – are far from a distraction; the contrast between “real” and “not real” is well in keeping with the unusual tone of the script.

“Ripcord” is a heart-warming comedy that runs through March 31. Whether it’s a group dive, a tandem date or a solo flight, you’ll be happy you took the plunge.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Maine Edge editor Allen Adams is part of the cast of this production.)

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