Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, through May 30. Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. $36-$39 941-366-9000, floridastudiotheatre.org
A friend of mine, a man in his 70s, once told me of the only mystical experience he’d ever had. He said that when he was much younger, a woman’s voice came to him out of nowhere and remarked, “You know you’re on earth for only two reasons, Larry: to love and to grow.” Then the voice disappeared, and in the decades that followed, he never heard it again. But he remembered the message.
I thought of this story after seeing the lovely, luminous Chapatti at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. This warmly humane play, written by Christian O’Reilly, is about a man who’s reluctant to love and to grow, and about the efforts that a woman makes to shake him out of his torpor.
When Chapatti begins, Dan, an elderly Irishman, is committed to nothing more than looking after his dog (whose name gives us the play’s title), mourning the deceased woman he spent 30 years with, and preparing for death.
Dan is a retired “building laborer” whose main excitement is bringing Chapatti to the vet for the thousandth time, even though the dog is quite healthy, and the creature in real need of attention is Dan. During one of these visits he accidentally bumps into Betty, an older woman carrying a box full of kittens, and when the kittens scatter everywhere, Betty bursts out laughing — a reaction that reminds Dan of lost Martha and her sense of humor. Still, Dan is anxious to leave the mirthful Betty and get back to his moping, unaware that she’ll turn up again before too long, and that he’ll soon be innocently sharing a cup of tea with her.
But Betty is no innocent. She’s a busy, helpful widow who didn’t love her unregretted, selfish husband, who still resents the brutal way in which he made love, and who spends most days looking after a houseful of cats and a dyspeptic harridan named Peggy. Betty is no aging supermodel either: she doesn’t wear makeup, dresses frumpily in brown corduroys and a shapeless jumper, and can’t bring herself to play sultry seductress for more than a minute before she reverts to her ordinary, truth-talking self.
And Betty likes Dan. He’s polite and gentle — so unlike her late husband — and he seems to care about her feelings. Eventually, too, she recognizes that he’s a depressive whose life may literally depend on her. So she sets out to win him, though he’s not very interested, and in one of the funniest scenes in this often-funny play, tries to get him looking down her neckline and under her dress. But the memory of Martha is stronger than any real woman, and Betty will have to struggle to reawaken Dan’s life instinct. She doesn’t have much time.
The play is composed both of monologues, during which the characters tell us their most honest thoughts, and dialogue, during which Dan and Betty negotiate the uncertain steps in their shaky relationship. Colin Lane as Dan is nothing short of splendid. Wistful, self-deprecating, tending toward hopelessness while still able to feel a bit of life-affirming vanity, Lane’s Dan is such a completely three-dimensional character, you come to feel that you know every microscopic detail of his life. And there’s something extra in this performance: as “ordinary” as Dan is, Lane makes him seem radiant, as if the human and the angelic aren’t as unrelated as we tend to believe.
As his opposite and foil Betty, Susan Greenhill is impeccable. This is a woman with few illusions, a pragmatic thinker who knows that dreams too are useful, a limited schemer who sets about winning Dan in the same resolutely silly way she goes about everything else. Kate Alexander directs these two with thrilling emotional precision, and Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set, representing the two characters’ separate homes backed by a graveyard, is potently evocative of a romance attempted just this side of eternity.
Susan Angermann’s fine costumes include the rather prosaic dress with which Betty comically hopes to stir Dan’s blood, not to mention both characters’ pathetic underclothes, seen as Dan and Betty prepare for a pivotal rendezvous. Richard Chamblin’s lighting is first-class.
And first-class is this surprising play about a grieving dog-lover and the stubborn cat-lover who sets out to save him. I know you’ve seen a hundred love stories; still, I insist that Chapatti is often fresh and even innovative. And I admit that I can’t think of another recent work that’s so touched my heart.