Friday, March 23, 2018

Grace notes of grief and healing: "Appoggiatura" completes IRT's mounting of a James Still trilogy

Travel is broadening, runs the cliche, but it can also be narrowing — sometimes in a positive way. For the unconventional family group in "Appoggiatura," upon its disheveled arrival one recent June in Venice, a sentimental journey is roughed up against the nap of the fabled Bride of the Sea only to find a magical payoff at the end.

Marco and Aunt Chuck have a heart-to-heart at a Viennese fountain.
In James Still's poignant comedy, the tug of memory — with two older adults focused on the deceased love of both their lives — competes with the slightly shabby charisma of the Italian port city, whose water-laced geography is perpetually both an attraction and a challenge. At first, flooding and a power outage combine with the modern traveler's curse of lost luggage to pose threats to the trip. The optimistic Helen's happiness is challenged, and deepened is the dour mood of the man for whom her late husband Gordon left her. The ex-rival is known to her and the party's third member, granddaughter Sylvie, as "Aunt Chuck." Those annoyances fade, and one of them is crucially mitigated late in the show.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting the third part of Still's trilogy (in previous seasons, IRT has staged "The House That Jack Built" and "Miranda") as part of its celebration of his 20th season as playwright in residence. The observance is also taking the form of an encore production of "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which opens next week.

Peter Amster directs a versatile cast, playing characters with an almost down-home appeal, despite the exotic setting. The family intimacy, in which hard-won affection must compete with fulfillment of diverse personal agendas, is brightly sketched in the opening scene by Susan Pellegrino (Helen), Tom Aulino (Aunt Chuck), and Andrea San Miguel (Sylvie). Still's writing is glinting and fast-paced; exposition is distributed with a skilled hand. Helen's willful cheeriness encompasses reading aloud snippets of local color from Venetian history. She's attempting to distract Aunt Chuck from his grumpiness and Sylvie from her default position of just going along with her elders as she tries to find herself.

The widow Helen (right) encounters Gordon and her younger self.
Progress from this shaky start will be found through a mix of tourist misdirection and serendipity. A deepening of self-knowledge, through both imagination and coming to terms with the hands life has dealt, generates change even more crucially. The comedy of international travel is sketched by Marco (Casey Hoekstra), an inexperienced Italian travel guide with rudimentary English hired via e-mail,  and secondary characters representing a host of cicerones, played by Andrew Maher, Paul DeBoy, and Katrina Yaukey.

The trio also functions as street musicians wittily and magnetically woven in and around the action. They are outfitted to a virtuoso turn by Tracy Dorman's costume designs, contrasting with the casual, travel-worn attire of the central trio, Marco's on-the-cheap debonair style, and the evocative, dressier fashion of a time long past for San Miguel as the young Helen and Hoekstra as the young Gordon.
Street musicians provide a sidewalk cafe patron with a reflective song.

It's worth pausing to mention a couple of characteristic Still touches that can sound sappy when singled out, but that work so well in context. In "April 4, 1968," it was the moment when the black family and their accidental white guest suddenly clasp hands while sitting on the couch. In "Appoggiatura," it's when the young Helen impulsively hugs the laptop, a device totally strange to her, at the end of a Skype call. An explanation would give too much away, but it's a precious moment.

Lee Savage's scenic design, with elements that move to suggest different sites around the city, basically serves to document the time-worn facades of Venice's canal-fronting structures. Alexander Ridgers' lighting slices in from the side or emblazons the scene all around, depending on the precise location and time of day. Still's incorporation of Skype chats and iPhone signaling is made smoothly manifest throughout the production, typically rich in IRT marvels.

A gondolier poles his way along, with passengers Aunt Chuck and Marco.
The Italian title, drawn from a musical term, is explained both in the company's promotional video and briefly in the show itself. In music, an appoggiatura is a kind of auxiliary note in a line that receives various degrees of emphasis in delaying the conclusion of a phrase. It's an embedded emotional tug that, expanded for dramatic purposes here, signals a reluctance to let go. When a playwright shows he has something fresh to say about love and loss, much of his success is assured. So it is with  "Appoggiatura."

And the best example of the title in the play's context comes in the gondola scene, where Aunt Chuck is inspired to burst into "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Marco and the gondolier join in with the Italian version. And where Marco finishes with "life is but a dream," his gondola companions end that last line with the Italian for "dream" —sogno — two syllables, of which the first one is an appoggiatura note. It's a perfect illustration, both of the device itself and of the play's meaning.

[Photos by Ed Stewart and Zach Rosing]