Fresh Lemonade

Richards, held by Lee, is impressive in her role.
Charlie Erickson

Dylan McDermott from The Practice might be one of TV's sexiest hunks, but his stepmother is a phenomenon unto herself. Eve Ensler, who has been writing provocative theater for years, hit it big back in 1996 with her Obie Award-winning one-woman show The Vagina Monologues. The script -- which has inspired adoration from such heavyweights as Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close and even Hillary Clinton -- has just reopened in New York City to a second wave of rave reviews.

All this new hoopla over Ensler's work underscores the incredible timing of Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd. He chose Ensler's lesser-known script Lemonade to open the season for the Alley's Neuhaus Arena Stage. See it to discover what all the Ensler fuss is about.

This delicate play, directed with great finesse by David Wheeler, is most remarkable for the precision of its language. The descriptions are exquisite. Red potatoes are "the ones that look like strange little heads." A yellow tablecloth is the color of "butter and summer." And when two women worry over the health of their breasts, mother soothes daughter, saying not to worry over the eggs she has eaten. "It's chocolate that makes breasts mean." In this eloquent, poetic writing Ensler turns the familiar inside out, revealing the strange, unusual and exotic glittering in the heart of the commonplace world.

Lemonade starts with Alice (Lisa Richards), who has been tending her garden, opening her screen door to find a middle-aged man sitting quietly in her wide old-fashioned kitchen. He is an absolute stranger. But Alice, who is herself middle-aged and alone, does the unpredictable. She offers him a glass of lemonade.

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The relationship sparked by this stunningly simple gesture becomes one of great intimacy. Though when she asks where he came from, he cannot answer. "It is not clear," he says.

"What?" asks Alice.

"My head," says the man, who comes to be known as Bernard (Stephen Mendillo).

Suffering from amnesia, he wants to insist that he and Alice have known each other a long time. "Are we married perhaps and forgot?" asks Bernard. "Am I a relative?" "Your employer? Your former employer?" "Have I lived here long?" "Were we in love?"

These questions are both poignant and very funny when asked by Mendillo's plaintive and seemingly openhearted Bernard. His wounded eyes search Alice's face, looking for answers, looking for a connection. More important, they poke at the surface of Ensler's real inquiry. It is found deep into the play, in a line by Alice's daughter. She asks "Does anyone really know or remember anyone?"

Jane (Sherri Parker Lee), the lawyer-daughter who returns home for a visit to find her mother bedded down with a complete stranger, is undone by the odd affair. She, like Bernard, wants to find a connection, though it is clear that she and her mother are alien to each other and that Jane's efforts are doomed by her neuroses.

In her best Alley performance yet, the beautiful Parker Lee has created a splendidly needy and angry character in this daughter. "Jane's always driving at something," says Bernard. And there is something in Lee's posture, something muscular in her striding walk, something twitchy in her hands that capture the constant worrisome ache that pushes Jane forward. This is a woman whose gut gnaws over everything; saccharin, UFOs, lupus, dolphins and the "death of metaphor." Jane obsesses most over her mother. And she devises a plan to get Alice away from Bernard.

But this mother, who has always been demure, has become a new woman, impetuously falling in love with this man who makes her feel "crucial," despite his shocking past uncovered by Jane's lawyerly snooping.

The enormous range of Alice's character -- she goes from housefrump to floozy and back -- is captured in a wonderfully textured performance by Richards, who seems to be as comfortable in house shoes as she is in stiletto black-leather boots.

The fine performances and this mesmerizing script are given good support by Kevin Rigdon's lighting. Ensler's ideas of alienation are captured in sudden blazes of hot white light that burn onto each character at moments of clarity.

There is something haunting and oddly tender in this quiet script. It uncovers all that is terrifying and lonely hidden within the heart of love.

Lemonade runs through November 7 at the Alley's Neuhaus Arena Stage, 615 Texas, (713)228-8421. $37-42.

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