Wednesday, January 19, 2000

'The Woolgatherer' a riveting production

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        New Edgecliff artistic director Michael Shooner has wanted to act in William Mastrosimone's odd little character study The Woolgatherer for going on 20 years.

        On opening night on the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank stage, it was easy to see why. Mr. Shooner and Melanie Wilson pitched themselves into the small romantic drama with the kind of urgency, conviction and passion that rivets the audience. It's something local productions rarely achieve on the small professional level.

        (You hardly notice this theatrical chemistry between theatrical art and audience is missing until it's suddenly, almost miraculously, there.)

        In The Woolgatherer, truck driver Cliff (Mr. Shooner) picks up candy counter salesgirl Rose (Ms. Wilson) one afternoon in South Philadelphia while his truck spends some time with a mechanic.

        He's a smart-mouthed jokester with a bruised but romantic heart. She's peculiar and skittish but brings him back to her apartment anyway.

        He has an afternoon and night to kill and wouldn't mind spending it in her bed. She needs company, but resists that much company. So they talk. While he looks for his moment, she reveals bits of her fragile soul. He is captivated.

        Maybe the oddest thing about this production of The Woolgatherer is that it is deeply flawed and it doesn't matter. The flaw is with Ms. Wilson's charismatic performance which, for all that it's memorable and deeply felt, is off.

        From early on, it's clear from Ms. Wilson's emotional-extremes embrac ing performance that Rose isn't just eccentric, or shy or strange. Ms. Wilson plays Rose crazy as a bedbug. She does it marvelously, but you can't help wondering why Cliff hasn't noticed and run for his life.

        All the hints are there, from the minute we all arrive at her room, as barren as a nun's cell. There are the dead plants, which Rose hopes could still return to life. There's the one glass and one chair and shattering aloneness of her existence.

        How completely spellbinding it would have been if director Jane Goetzman would have let Ms. Wilson's performance play with the audience, letting us wonder, suspect, discover, be emotionally shattered.

        There is more rhythm and resonance to be found in the material, but the fact is The Woolgatherer is like being handed a clear, sparkling, long drink of water when you're coming out of a desert. Pointing out that it's capable of being champagne might be considered surly.

        Mr. Shooner is compelling from first to last as he illuminates the shadowy interiors of a mug who's much more than an easy flow of politically incorrect one-liners.

        For the last year and a half, New Edgecliff has been easing toward its first regular season in 2000-2001. (The program promises a world premiere of Southern Discomfort by Newsweek's Randall Cook, Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Joyce Carol Oates' I Stand Before You Naked.)

        If the theater maintains its current quality, and there's no reason to believe it won't, New Edgecliff is going to be an electric addition to the local theater scene come autumn.

        The Woolgatherer, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Fifth Third Bank Theater, Aronoff Center. 241-7469.


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