She: I never apologize cause I am never wrong.
He:  Neither am I!

Is this any way to start a relationship? Well, in the world of romantic comedies it is.  Think of all the great screen couples whose road to love began with out-and-out hatred, or at least some good old-fashioned dislike.  Think Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night, Crystal and Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, or last year’s Reynolds and Bullock in The Proposal. Couples like these carry on a great tradition begun perhaps by Will Shakespeare in The Taming Of The Shrew, or who knows, maybe from as far back as Adam and Eve.

Playwright Kenny Finkle adds one more memorable couple to the list in his terrific new stage romcom, Alive And Well, now getting its co-World Premiere (in collaboration with Virginia Stage Company) at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. The couple in question are straight-laced Yankee reporter Carla Keenan and good ol’ Southern boy Zachariah Clemenson, forced by circumstances to share each other’s company for ten days under the hot Virginia sun.

Starchy blonde Carla, strapped for cash, has answered an ad on Craigslist to write an article on The Lonesome Soldier, rumored to be a vagabond Confederate grayback still fighting the Civil War in the hills of Virginia.  Her guide for the duration is a lanky, bearded Southerner who drives a cab for a living but does Civil War reenactments “to feel alive.” 

If you, like Carla, have no idea what a Civil War reenactment is, here’s the 411, courtesy of Wikipedia. “American Civil War reenactment is an effort to recreate the appearance of a particular battle or other event associated with the American Civil War by hobbyists known as Civil War reenactors.”  Zachariah is a Civil War reenactor, and proud of it.

At their first meeting at a local diner, Carla sets down the ground rules, one of which is that there will be no first names.  She will be Ms. Keenan. He will be Mr. Clemenson. “We are not friends,” she insists.

From the get-go, Zach and Carla (I’ll stick with first names for the sake of brevity) couldn’t me more mismatched. He believes disagreements make this country great. She thinks that’s what’s wrong with it.  She certainly doesn’t get his sense of humor.  (The man says “gour-METT” for “gourmet” because he likes the way it sounds, and keeps mispronouncing it once he realizes how much it irritates her.) She, on the other hand, doesn’t appreciate it when he corrects her pronunciation of Norfolk.  It should be NAH-fuk, he explains, which she finally, grudgingly repeats (with a deliberate accent on the FUK.)  It’s not that Carla is a complete stick-in-the-mud. She confesses to being a fan of the James Bond pix, particularly of “the Roger Moore years,” something which she is “not open to discussing” with Zach. Later, though, when her cell phone rings with the James Bond Theme, it’s clear that her fandom is of the decidedly geeky sort.

Conveniently, both Zach and Carla are single, though in the former’s case, it’s only since this morning. That’s when his on-again-off-again girlfriend Regina dumped him once again, and to make matters worse, called him a pig—in a letter—and all because of his reenactments!

Following a tabletop demonstration of the fall of Appomattox using salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of Tabasco sauce, Zach shows Carla where the last sighting of the Lonesome Soldier was, and explains their plan of action. They’re going to walk 100 miles in ten days. No matter that Carla would rather stay in comfortable hotels and drive.  That would be “farb,” i.e. as inauthentic as the “fake garb” that polyester reenactors wear.  Thus, they will both wear authentic Civil War uniforms, his gray, hers blue.

And so “Mr. Clemenson” and “Ms. Keenan” embark on their ten-day trek to Appomattox, scene of Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Playwright Finkle wisely keeps Carla’s thawing to Zach’s considerable charms from happening too quickly.  She’s not at all sympathetic to Zach’s tendency to tears, which he calls “sensitivity.” When a misreading of his compass gets them miles off course and Zach blubbers, “This is pathetic! I’m pathetic!”, you can almost hear Carla thinking, “Damn right you are!”  

But little by little things do begin to change, on both their parts. She’s “badass and fearless” in an electric storm, and he’s impressed.  In a drunken getting-ready-for-bed scene, sparks of a very different sort begin, oh so slightly, to ignite, and the “comeback contest” that ends Act One is akin to foreplay, albeit of the romantic comedy sort.

Anyone who doubts the happy ending in store for our Red-State/Blue-State couple has not seen his or her fair share of romcoms.  As in the really great ones, the fun is in the getting there, with director Jeremy Dobrish keeping the pace swift and the performances just heightened enough to be comedic gems.

For someone portraying a character seemingly born without a sense of humor, Broadway vet (and San Diego native) Kelly McAndrew gets laughs aplenty, and it’s fun indeed to see her stiffen every time Zach does something purposely designed to get on her nerves. Later, as Carla begins to loosen up under the influence of one of the many flasks of homemade moonshine Zach has brought along for sustenance, McAndrew lets us see the bit of mush Carla keeps hidden deep inside, and in the comeback contest, the actress demonstrates great comic timing.  By the end, we begin to see just why Zach might find this sour Northerner a bit of a sweetheart after all.

As for James Knight’s performance as Zach, the actor is so darned charming and sexy that it’s a wonder Carla doesn’t rip off his clothes and go for it at their first meeting, but I digress.  What we have here is a highly talented young performer with great comedic chops, the ability to cry real laugh-getting tears, authenticity, and loads of charisma. And he’s got a whole bunch of Shakespeare credits to boot—so keep an eye out for that name.

Robin Sanford Brown’s great in-the-round set is a relief map of the part of Virginia where Zach and Carla are making their trek, which transforms quite amazingly into an abandoned lodge—double bed, bear rug and all.  Michael Gottlieb’s terrific lighting runs the gamut from bright Virginia sun to lightning flashes in a room lit only by a fire in the hearth to one of the most exquisite fade-outs I’ve seen on stage. Paul Peterson’s sound design sets the mood perfectly with bluegrass-county-civil war tunes, and some nicely scary peals of thunder.  Shelly Williams’ costumes are a darned authentic pair of Civil War uniforms, McAndrews’ nicely tailored to fit her decidedly unsoldierlike curves.  The production stage manager for Alive And Well is Moira Gleason.

Regional theaters across America are likely to take to Alive And Well as much as they have to Finkle’s Indoor/Outdoor.  And that goes for those in the North as well as the South, as the playwright takes no sides in Carla and Zach’s battle between Yankee and Confederate.  No raunchier than a PG movie yet with a sophistication that belies its lack of overt sex or even sexual innuendo, Alive And Well is a delight from its start to a finish that may well put a tear or two in your eyes even as a smile lights up your face.

The Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
March 28, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Craig Schwart

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