Direct Hit

Jack Holloway's direction and a strong cast illuminate The Pavilion.

Director Jack Holloway may be the best thing ever to happen to Hat Trick Theatre. So what if he's usually an actor? His directing efforts eight months ago on the surprising Scapin, and now on Craig Wright's The Pavilion, testify to just the kind of painstaking major talent that Hat Trick has long needed.

Even with a limited budget, and on the tiny Silver Meteor Gallery stage, Holloway makes The Pavilion a moving and memorable experience. He elicits a performance from Joe Winskye far ahead of anything Winskye has done before and finds in Jan Ray, an actress I can't remember seeing previously, depths of feeling so persuasive, it's hard to believe that she's acting. Holloway hasn't solved every problem: The set design for half the show is disappointing, and the costumes of the two protagonists seem as arbitrary and unilluminating, as if there were no designer involved. But even with the somewhat sloppy, ramshackle look of the surroundings, this Pavilion reaches stunning emotional climaxes that'll have you holding your breath lest you miss a pivotal word. And author Wright's controversial message — that life offers no second chances, that no one can recapture lost time — comes through with real force and passion. I think Wright is, in many cases, wrong — but I sure enjoyed seeing and hearing him make his case.

The Pavilion is the story of Kari and Peter, two high-school sweethearts who meet at their 15th reunion and try to find a way out of the impasse they fell into during their senior year, when she became pregnant and he skipped town. A lot has happened since: Kari married a golf pro named Hans, who dreams of "difficult holes" during sex, and Peter came to realize that there was no one who would ever mean as much to him as the young woman he abandoned. But as Peter discovers when he tries to make amends, Kari's not interested. She believes that the entire universe soured during those days of pain and betrayal, and Peter's desire to marry her, to restart their old relationship, seems like typical insensitivity to the reality of time itself. As if to validate Kari's position, the locals have decided that, after the reunion ends, they will burn down the pavilion where Kari and Peter once walked hand in hand. Time, according to this view, turns all sorts of possibilities to ashes, and there's no way to reverse the process. Even if Peter truly loves Kari now, even if he's honestly contrite about his actions and willing to change, the very fabric of the universe won't allow him his redemption. Still, he's resolved to try — and that effort is the play's main focus.

But there's more to it than that. Also showing up at and around the reunion are 22 or so characters, all played by Jonathan Cho, Paul McColgan and Lynn Moore. These minor characters give a certain breadth to the proceedings and remind us that the Kari/Peter duet takes place amid a swirl of activity. These characters also act as narrators: "This is the way the universe begins," says Cho, and "This is a play about time," asserts McColgan. But more often, they play former buddies of Kari and Peter, like Pudge (Cho), who now works for a suicide hotline, or Carla (Moore), whose husband "screwed around" on her and who advises Kari to "never forgive." Then there's Denise (Moore), who talks with Kari about career choices, and chief of police Kent (McColgan), who's searching for the man (Cho) who's been sleeping with his wife. When the three actors who play these parts aren't shifting identities, they're moving set pieces around or turning an old dance hall into a dock leading out to a lake. The result, at worst, is just a little confusing; at best, it's magical and one of the joys of the evening.

But the key performances in the play are Ray's and Winskye's, and it's here that this production of The Pavilion is at its strongest. Much of the credit goes to Ray, who plays Kari as a strong and lovely but wounded woman without a romantic bone in her body. There's nothing stereotypically "feminine" about Ray's Kari: She's tough and capable and can out-shout anyone else on stage when necessary. But she was innocent once; she trusted someone, she loved someone, and someone betrayed her. Now she's disenchanted in a sadly complete way: She's in a loveless marriage that she's not planning to put behind her and in a boring bank job that she has no intention of giving up. Because she doesn't believe in second chances, it's very possible she'll never find any. And for all her toughness, there's something broken in her. You can't help but wish that she thought healing to be possible.

Winskye is almost as convincing. His Peter is a sloppy, heavyset bear of a guy who thinks that good intentions should be enough to reverse the past and that if he can only find the right formula — the required words of apology or tone of voice or confession of sin — then everything can be put aright. Winskye is not a very technically proficient actor, but under Holloway's direction, he plays Peter with an emotional honesty that's disarming and finally winning. I wish that costumer Lani McGettigan had made his appearance less slovenly — surely he'd want to look his best for his beloved — but even with his shirttails hanging out, he persuades us that he's committed to one thing and to one thing alone: a future with Kari. What's not so clear is whether Kari — or author Wright — is prepared to grant him that wish.

Incidentally, Winskye's also the set designer — and here there's definitely room for improvement. The set that starts the play is a virtually featureless construct — save for a banner reading "Class of '92" — that doesn't resemble any structure I can identify and doesn't please as an abstraction either. Fortunately, it morphs into something more recognizable in Act 2. But the Silver Meteor space, unimpressive at best, needs a sharp, attractive set, whatever the play. This one doesn't come close.

But that's a quibble. Mostly, this Pavilion is a real step forward for Hat Trick and its diligent company. Director Holloway is a real talent. And he'll be back in March to direct Funny Money.

My money's on him.

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