| Stage |

Jeannette Clift George Gives a Stunning Performance in A.D. Players' Whatever Happened to the Villa Real

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The setup:

In Whatever Happened to the Villa Real, residents of a country inn meet and meddle, and learn a bit about human nature, while sitting and rocking on the ample veranda of the Villa Real.

The execution:

The handsome set by Mark A. Lewis is detailed and contains an interior room of the inn, seen through windows, but four large rocking chairs spread across the raised wide porch fill the stage, and establish instantly that this is to be a deliberately sedentary play, with a gentle rhythm and a patient exposition.

Playwright Jeannette Clift George goes the term "triple threat" one better, as she not only is playwright, starring actor and the play's director, but also the play's producer as the artistic director of A.D. Players. The good news is that George is a highly skilled, deft actor with huge charm, and she etches an indelible portrait of a woman at the age when a walker is found useful, and endows "Clarice Moffatt" with vivacity, wit and a wicked sense of humor -- no wonder that a younger man is intrigued by her.

The younger man, played by Andrew George Barrett, is "Perry Rockdale," who has graduated from Dartmouth with honors, but has a physical handicap resulting in a limp. He is less well-drawn -- we see none of the academic brilliance, but Barrett finds his enthusiasm and naiveté and makes him likable. Their initial bonding is over physical frailty, but Clarice's charm is such that the deepening of their relationship becomes increasingly plausible -- we observe its development in a series of adroitly written vignettes taking place on park benches.

The play, though set in America, falls in the time-honored genre of British-country-home-where-very-disparate-guests-are-gathered; the only element missing is the dead body. Dr. Gentry (Ric Hodgin) is pleasant and has a working moral compass, the mature sisters Aurora Van Gelder (Christy Watkins) and Heloise Challis (Patty Tuel Bailey) are nosy-parkers of the first order, and a late-arriving trio with a common surname serve as the focal point of their need-to-know; these are Lance Bilford (Craig Griffin), Regina Bilford (Sarah Cooksey) and Lily Bilford (Katharine Hatcher). Marijane Vandivier as the inn manager Miss Dormer completes the cast, and each serves an appointed function, though never achieving the symmetry of ensemble acting.

The drama is relatively thin but the humor is not, as playwright George has a knack for an epigram, and actor George has the fine-tuned delivery of a seasoned professional. A loudspeaker broadcasts instructions to guests, and these are amusing and have the ring of truth, as do the insights about human nature. The lighting by Andrew Vance is effective and even poetic where required. The pace does lag in the porch scenes, and the physical action is necessarily limited when the rocking chairs are fully occupied.

Despite winning the 2011 CITA (Christians in Theatre Arts) award, the play could use some strengthening -- the sisters are sketched with a heavy hand, and the Dartmouth grad needs elaboration. While George and Barrett on the benches keep the pace up admirably, the rocking chairs on the porch may be too seductive -- the interchanges here are courtly to a fault, with actors politely exchanging lines in turn -- I wished for a few firecrackers under that veranda to speed things up.

The work will be savored most by those of "a certain age," but its humor and charm will ensure that these patrons truly enjoy it. And the many fans of Jeannette Clift George will be happy to learn again, as Shakespeare wrote of another multitalented woman: "Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety."

The verdict:

Though the drama is far from explosive, the comedy is rich and the wit often brilliant, enhanced further by a stunning performance by Jeannette Clift George.

Whatever Happened to the Villa Real continues through March 25, A.D. Players at Grace Theatre, 2710 W. Alabama. For information or tickets, call 713-526-2721 or visit www.adplayers.org.

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