To hear Hollywood tell it, the only thing post-retirement folks are good for is a laugh, often at their own expense. As for romance or (God forbid) sex, forget it. For these and many other reasons, Kathleen Clark’s romantic comedy Southern Comforts, now playing at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre, comes as a welcome treat.


Crusty widower Gus Klingman (Granville Van Dusen) is a retired stone mason living in a nearly empty suburban New Jersey house without really living in it. Then Gus meets former librarian Amanda Cross (Michael Learned), a feisty Tennessee widow up north visiting her daughter, and things will never again be the same for curmudgeonly Gus.

Amanda first shows up on Gus’s doorstep with a packet of donation envelopes she’s volunteered to deliver to parishioners of her daughter’s church. Since the spirited Southern Belle has arrived in the middle of a summer storm, Gus semi-grudgingly invites her to stick around till the deluge stops. “You must save a lot on furniture polish,” wisecracks his plain-speaking visitor upon scanning the spacious but nearly furniture-free living room.

From their first exchange, it’s clear that sparks of one kind or another are likely to ignite whenever South meets North. Amanda longs to travel; Gus doesn’t “see the need,” though he did move next door after his wedding. As for his forty-five year marriage which ended five years ago with his wife’s death, misty watercolor memories are few and far between. Helen was unhappy in her marriage, but don’t ask Gus to tell you why since he never thought to ask. As for Gus’s childless adult son, well, he only comes around about twice a year to check up on the old man. “I can get along just fine,” brags the self-proclaimed self-sufficient widower. “I don’t need him anyway.”

As for female companionship, Gus can also do just fine without all those women who stopped by after his wife’s death just to interrupt his TV viewing. Amanda, on the other hand, would be bored silly if she did like Gus and simply spent her time alone in front of a TV set watching whatever ball game is on the tube. The Tennessee widow can’t stand being bored, and though she doesn’t mind a bit of juicy gossip, the idea of spending all day with a bunch of old biddies chattering on about this rumor or that (that is, when they’re not complaining about getting old), well, Amanda can think of far better ways to pass the time of day.


Though she and Gus are clearly not a match made in heaven, Amanda is still around the following Sunday. Not that this means that the two septuagenarians are getting along any better than before. Gus snaps at Amanda when she happens to mention his son, though later when she suggests that the time may have come for her to head back home to Tennessee, Gus is even less pleased about the idea.

The two soon begin sharing confidences. Gus reveals that his late wife moved out of their bedroom and into their son’s room the day he left home. Amanda discloses that her husband was killed in a car accident, though perhaps the “accident” was his way of getting rid of his horrible war-related nightmares. Ultimately, Amanda tells Gus, “I guess we both missed out, didn’t we?”

Perhaps, then, there is some hope for these two to fill in the gaps in their lives in a way that their respective spouses never could. “You’re like a good cup of coffee,” Gus tells Amanda. “You keep me awake.” Maybe this is why even after August comes and goes, Amanda is still up north.

Playwright Clark clearly believes in the attraction of opposites, for Gus and Amanda couldn’t be more dissimilar. He doesn’t understand the world Amanda lives in, one where people actually want other people to be happy. She believes people are basically good, and Gus can hardly put up with them. Perhaps worst of all, Amanda simply can’t fathom how Gus can actually be—God forbid—a Republican!

Clark understands too that even “over-seventies” can still get the urge to merge from time to time, though truth be told, Gus isn’t all that comfortable when talk turns to sex. Amanda’s “I don’t like a lot of lights on” provokes an embarrassed “Oh Geez!” from Gus. Still, when Amanda asks Gus point blank, “Are you still able to?”, he responds with an enthusiastic “Hell yes!”, and like that proverbial “horse and carriage,” love does indeed go together with marriage. Before you can sing the first notes of “Here comes the bride,” Amanda has become Mrs. Gus Klingman—and then the real fireworks start.

Finessefully directed by Southland treasure Jules Aaron, Southern Comforts features stellar performances by a pair of stage and screen vets whose résumés could fill a phone book. Learned brings to her role our collective memories of her years as Olivia Walton, oodles of charm and warmth, and razor-sharp comic timing. With film and TV credits going back four decades or more (including a 1974 guest spot on The Waltons), Van Dusen simply couldn’t be better as the crotchety old Northerner domesticized by Learned’s implacably upbeat Southern ways. There’s an abundance of romantic and sexual chemistry between the two stars, and their fight scenes snap, crackle, and pop. In addition, the duo prove themselves masters of physical comedy in a hilarious scene which has Gus attempting to install storm windows and finding himself trapped on the roof with only Amanda (and a curtain rod) to help him squeeze back into the house.

Keith E. Mitchell’s set design is expertly conceived and executed down to the smallest detail, credit shared with prop designer Heather Ho. (Note the weathered wallpaper where photos and paintings have apparently once hung, and the carefully chosen family photos Amanda brings along when she moves in.) Lighting design whiz Dan Weingarten not only knows how to light a scene according to season and time of day but also when to dim the lights ever so subtly, thereby upping the intimacy of a dramatic moment. Kim DeShazo’s costumes reveal much about the characters who wear them. Max Kinberg has composed a just-right musical score to take us from scene to scene. Kudos too to whoever is helping Learned and Van Dusen make lickety-split costume changes backstage, and to the stage hands who make the “moving in” opening of Act Two such a delight. Bridgid O’Brien is stage manager.

Deliciously comedic and touchingly dramatic, Southern Comforts gives us an improbable pair of romantic sweethearts in whose happiness we become quickly and thoroughly invested. Gus and Amanda may not have the decades-long “happily ever after” that most romcom lovers are guaranteed, but that doesn’t make Southern Comforts’ happy ending any less satisfying to audience members of a romantic bent. Not only will the older theatergoing set enjoy seeing their own age group spotlighted on the Falcon stage, audiences of any age will find considerable Southern comfort and joy in Southern Comforts.

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Through November 13. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 4:00. Reservations: 818 955-8101

–Steven Stanley
October 21, 2011

Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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