The sins of the past play havoc with the lives of a trio of seniors about to be booted from their retirement home in Kerr Seth Lordygan’s World Premiere drama Askance. Though still a work in progress, Askance is capably directed for the Eclectic Company Theatre by Sabrina Lloyd, features several particularly strong performances, and concludes with some satisfying Act Two surprise twists and revelations.

Longtime marrieds Irving (Joseph Cardinale) and Milly (Kenlyn Kanouse) are spending their final morning at the seniors’ home playing Connect Four and bickering, obviously not for the first time. Blank-eyed Sylvia (Ivy Jones) stares into space uttering nonsense phrases like, “I am and I’m not. I understand. I don’t. I have had visitors. I haven’t had visitors.” (In fact, Sylvia hasn’t had a single visitor in all her years in the home.)  Watching over the threesome are sassy nurse Adele (RJ Farrington) and her born-again colleague Liz (Taylor Ashbrook).

In the first of a series of flashbacks, Askance next transports us back in time to the early 1950s where 20something Irv (Adam Coggins) and Milly (Beth Ricketson) meet cute in a local bar. He’s shy. She’s flirtatious. “Here’s my number,” she tells him after writing it on a napkin in lipstick. “Use it for when you decide you’re man enough to beg me for a date.” Later flashbacks show us a) Young Irv and Milly six months into their dating; b) Irv’s being offered a teaching job which Milly celebrates with a casserole; c) Irv’s attempts to fend off the interest of sixteen-year-old student—and self-proclaimed would-be homewrecker—Roz (understudy Sigi Gradwohl).

At its best, Askance provides glimpses into the lives of characters not normally given center stage roles, reminds us that each and every elderly person we see using a cane or walker or wheelchair was at one time young and vital and just starting out in life, and offers several satisfying climactic surprises.

Still, despite a running time of only about two hours and ten minutes (including intermission), Askance feels much longer, something that could be remedied by faster overall pacing and a number of significant cuts.

The three monologs which Sylvia delivers directly to the audience reveal the fevered imaginings of a deeply troubled soul, but ultimately prove superfluous, Sylvia’s daily ravings already telling us as much as we need to know about the character. Irving gets a protracted monolog in which he recalls the horrors of being among the first American soldiers to liberate Nazi death camp Dachau, a terrific scene for an acting class, but one which in this context only slows down the action (and provides insufficient payoff when the time comes). A clash between homophobic Nurse Liz and a gay character proves equally extraneous. Askance would be a better play with all five monologs excised.

On the other hand, the addition of several more flashback sequences (already among the play’s most absorbing) would fill in numerous blanks in addition to giving the cast’s terrific younger members more stage time.

Ashbrook, Coggins, Kanouse, Frank Krueger as Dr. Edwards, and Ricketson all do fine work, as does Michael Tatlock as Mikey, though the latter could benefit from a less strident line delivery. (In one scene involving the revelation of important information about Mikey and Sylvia, there’s so much shouting from all concerned that this information gets drowned out.) An excellent Jones creates an indelible portrait of a woman whose ravings hide a deeply damaged soul and heart. Cardinale creates a three-dimensional Irving, but a swifter line delivery would prevent his scenes from dragging on and on as they do.

The evening’s standout work is done by a marvelous Farrington and a mesmerizing Gradwold (though most readers of this review will likely not see her understudy performance repeated). Farrington exhibits expert comedic timing, a terrific way with a wisecrack, and oceans of depth as Nurse Adele. A sensational Gradwohl is scarily real as an irresistibly seductive Lolita whose obsession with young Irv comes close to madness.

Thanks to director Lloyd and an expert set design by Marco De Leon (one which places the seniors’ home upstage and allows various tables and chairs to be moved into place downstage for flashback sequences), scene changes are executed lickety-split, where in less competent hands they might drag on and on.

Other design elements are equally fine—John Dickey’s lighting, Rachel Engstrom’s costumes, and Brian E. Smith’s sound design. Fight choreographer David Beach could work a bit more with the play’s fighters in creating more realistic punches.

Askance is produced by Laura Lee Bahr, Lordygan, and Jennifer Salas. Tim Sprague is stage manager.

With major cuts and some additional scenes, Askance could end up quite the psychological suspense thriller. As is, it still needs work, but is nonetheless worth a look-see, particularly in this theatrical dry spell in which any serious drama provides much needed rain (accompanied by plenty of thunder and lightning).

The Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village.

–Steven Stanley
December 23, 2011
Photos: David Nott

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