“When a health crisis forces Terry to move back into his parents’ basement, his best friend John supports him with laughter, sympathy, bravado, and finally, honesty.”

Rarely has a press release taken such pains to be detail/spoiler-free, so in the interest of honoring Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s wishes, let me simply say: If you’re in the mood for a beautifully written, exquisitely acted, and often quite funny tearjerker, make plans to see Stephen Dierkes’ World Premiere dramedy Land Line—and should eye makeup be your thing, be sure your mascara is waterproof.

Still, no reviewer worth his salt could possibly leave it at that, so for those dying to know more before heading on over to Atwater Village, feel free to read on with the following proviso:

There will be spoilers ahead.

landlin- cortez johnston smith hq First of all, the health crisis in question is a malignant brain tumor, one which has sent 30something Terry back from sunny Los Angeles to his parents’ Grand Rapids, Michigan home, hardly the cheeriest place to be bedridden from a shattered kneecap (the result of a seizure-provoked fall) and facing the possibility of death by cancer in the dead of winter.

Talk about a “health crisis.”

The Land Line in question is Terry’s parents’ quarter-century-old basement extension phone, there being little or no cellular reception down below, though the basement does at least provide a modicum of privacy, or would were it not for mom Tammy’s frequent visits, whether to bring down her “famous tuna casserole” (hot on the outside, frozen on the inside, and the shape of the Campbell’s Cream Of Mushroom Soup can still visible on the top) or to vacuum away pesky mold spores from assorted throw rugs.

landline- larney smith2 hq More significantly, the basement land line represents a life line to John, the best friend Terry has left behind in Southern California, though whether there is or has been more than friendship between them is left for us to determine … at least until Act Two.

Did I mention that Terry and John are gay?

They are, and if Terry’s “alternative lifestyle” has led to a prickly-at-best relationship with a stepfather who never took all that kindly to a inheriting another man’s “different” child, Terry and John’s sexual orientation, a love for bad Suzanne Somers poetry, and shared dreams of vacationing on the beaches of Brazil have kept them close despite the thousands of miles now between them.

landline- larney smith hq When Terry’s “health crisis” turns a bit more (shall we say) “critical” and John flies from L.A. to Grand Rapids for a week of face-to-face time with his dearest friend, Terry and the three people closest to him learn things about each other that neither they, nor we, might otherwise have discovered.

Crisp, unsentimental writing distinguishes Land Line from the cheap sentiment of those dreaded/dreadful “Disease Of The Week” movies of years past as do a quartet of complex, three-dimensional characters, each of whom must ponder how best to face illness with the odds heavily stacked against survival—whether to battle death till your dying breath or to Let Go And Let God.

Playwright Dierkes offers no easy answers.

What he does give us are four deeply human characters we come to care about, particularly as brought to life by Land Line’s superb four-member cast under William Charlton’s perceptive direction.

A brilliant Peter James Smith plays Terry with a potent combination of sweetness and edge and fear and rage that alone makes Land Line worth seeing, and though Dierkes doesn’t give John his cancer-battling friend’s emotional fireworks display, the strength and warmth and vulnerability that Peter Larney displays in the role add up to one fine bit of acting, and never more so than in a climactic monolog that Larney makes a dramatic tour de force.

landline- cortez johnston2 hq In a pair of powerful supporting turns, Katherine Cortez and John Dennis Johnston aren’t afraid to let Tammy and Amos rub us the wrong way, just as they do Terry, at least until Dierkes’ script allows each performer to reveal unexpected sides to a couple of parents dealing with an adult child’s illness the best they know how.

The intimacy of EST’s Atwater Village “Speakeasy” space proves an ideal setting for Land Line, turning the audience into flies on the walls of scenic designer William Sammons’ nicely detailed set (props by intern Joe Faragher), lit by Sammons with professional flair. Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s accomplished sound design is a mix of carefully chosen effects, the distinctive samba rhythms of Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Slawinski’s own mood-enhancing original music. Catherine Baumgardner’s costumes are equally well selected to match each character’s personal choices.

Land Line is produced by Mina Sharpe. Marissa Drammissi is stage manager.

Telling a story we’ve seen and heard ad infinitum in a fresh and powerful new way is no easy task, but one that Stephen Dierkes accomplishes quite terrifically in Land Line, a play that deserves to live on after this World Premiere run has reached its Fred Astaire moment. See it, and you’ll see what I mean.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
June 30, 2014
Photos: Kevin Riggin

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