There is an almost mystical loveliness to Craig Wright's The Pavilion, now playing under Rob Bundy's direction at Stages Repertory Theatre. Kirk Markley's graceful set of curving glass walls and wide wooden porches casts the first spell. Then narrator Philip Lehl spreads wide his arms and asks for stars. Suddenly, they are twinkling across the dark heavens of the theater, casting an amber glow over the heads of Peter (Brian Byrnes) and Kari (Anne Quackenbush), the two middle-aged sad sacks at the center of the story.
Certainly Peter and Kari could use some starry-eyed romance in their dreary lives. Once voted the "cutest couple" at Pine City High School, the two are now living lonely, embittered lives. They haven't seen each other since one fateful teenage day when Peter decided to take his chances on a future without his high school flame. Now, at their 20th high school reunion, the two will finally meet again to struggle their way through what the narrator so poetically calls the "complex geometry" of memory, time and the frailty of the human heart.
There is actually a lot of poetry in Wright's magical script. "This is the way the universe begins," says the narrator. "A world made of stars dancing." Sentimental as this might sound, it works, largely because of Lehl's stunning performance as the everyman, strolling through the story, speaking directly to both audience and characters about the issues that come up along the way. He tells the entire history of the cosmos in a few short paragraphs, ending with a wonderfully strange observation: "At the center of everything in the universe there's you." Lehl handles this stuff with a wry twist of intelligence and cool youthful grace. As a result, it comes off as lyrical and wise instead of cornball.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway
Through October 28; 713-527-0123. $32-$42
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Lehl also plays a myriad of other hysterically funny supporting characters, the kooks of Peter and Kari's graduating class. We first meet a guy named Pudge who works at a suicide hot line. Weird thing is, it's a 900 number, and they charge the desperate callers by the minute. As Pudge points out, "When it works, it's a real bargain." There's also a stoner mayor, a woman who's having an affair, her desolate husband and a philosophical minister who believes that "women only have so many eggs and men only have so many feelings." They're all standing at the precipice of middle age, ripe with disappointment. And Lehl conjures them with distilled and subtle snatches of movement: a shift in the shoulders, a twist of the hips, a lift of the brow. Lehl makes each of his abbreviated characters funny, thought-provoking and moving.
Less rewarding are the characters of Kari and Peter, whose tale of teenage love gone south has been told many times before. We don't find out the depths of Kari's rage until halfway into the story, when she venomously reminds Peter of the sordid events that led to their breakup. Suffice it to say, he behaved very badly. She's filled the years since with an abiding resentment that has poisoned her entire outlook. "It's life," she spits out, "bearable is the best we can hope for." She's spent the last two decades working in the town bank and married to Hans, her golf-pro husband, who thinks about "really difficult holes" on the golf course when he's making love to her. Quackenbush has created an ice queen out of Kari. She will not forgive Peter, no matter how much he begs. But her anger is so static, so implacable, so unmediated by time and age, that it's difficult to care for her, even when she reveals the nasty history behind her impenetrable rage. And when she finally does forgive Peter, it's hard to understand why, given her weird and constant need to live out the bad hand fate seems to have dealt her.
Byrnes's Peter is certainly regretful, but he's also "cosmically stupid." He shows up with his dark good looks, a fistful of flowers and a long list of apologies, hoping to somehow win Kari back. So what if he's got a good job and a 23-year-old girlfriend who paints still lifes; he's just not fulfilled, and he traces his emptiness back to the summer day long ago when he decided to leave Kari behind. Now he's come home to Pine City, looking for forgiveness and maybe even a way back to the fiery past when he was one half of "the cutest senior couple" in high school. But as the narrator tells us, "Time only goes in one direction."
And as Thomas Wolfe told us some 60 years ago, you really can't go home again. Indeed, Wright's nostalgic message is an old one. But it's worth saying once again. And the last scene, in which Lehl enacts all the lonely voices saying so long to the past in an effort to go on with the rest of their lives, is worth the entire evening. "Of course my heart's been broken," says one, "but all in all I'm happy because life's been good." That's the sort of aching wisdom that it takes half a lifetime to get to.