‘Savage in Limbo’ invites us to eavesdrop

Posted April 04, 2010, at 5:49 p.m.

John Patrick Shanley writes plays that are up close, personal and loud.

Maybe that’s because he grew up in the Bronx, the son of a meat cutter father and a telephone operator mom.

Whatever the reason, the 59-year-old playwright knows how the human heart, body and soul crave intimacy. That’s what won him an Oscar for his “Moonstruck” screenplay in 1987. It’s also what drives the characters Shanley created three years earlier for “Savage in Limbo.”

Shanley’s play was performed March 25-28 in the Al Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine. The three-quarters-round space, which seats just 89 people, let theatergoers feel like flies on the wall of the bar where Shanley set his story about people struggling over

who they wanted to grow up to be and who they really are.

The individuals who populate this bar all seem to be 32 years old, about the age Shanley was when he was writing it in the early 1980s. Director Sandra Hardy kept in that era, so big hair, high heels and fabric that couldn’t take a breath in a roomful of pure oxygen dominated the stage.

Hardy not only got her actors to inhabit the roles creating types that somehow defied stereotyping, she also taught them to listen to one another. It is the most important skill an actor can learn and the hardest to maintain and practice.

Like the neighborhood where Shanley set his story, Hardy molded a tightly knit ensemble. Audience members didn’t watch “Savage in Limbo,” they eavesdropped on the same conversations the playwright drew from to create his dialogue.

The best listener is the place is, of course, Murk, the bartender. Actor Ed Benson was almost constantly in motion — making drinks, passing out peanuts, wiping down the bar — and listening intently. Benson made Murk an ardent eavesdropper who used what he learned listening to act as a skilled mediator. The actor never crossed the line to upstage other actors, but, like some Greek listening chorus, always was there, aware of his patrons’ past, present and future.

The title, “Savage in Limbo,” refers to a character played by Emma Davis. Savage is a 32-year-old virgin who can’t seem to change her destiny. Davis captured all the pent-up frustration and desperation the woman feels. The actress subtly revealed the savage girl inside a vulnerable woman, but Davis also never allowed Savage to drown in self-pity.

This production, however, belonged to Christina Belknap, who portrayed Linda. This was what Mrs. Tony Soprano was like before she married the mobster. Belknap brought to life the scrappy survivor, the kind of women who surrounded Shanley in the Bronx, with a ferocious grace few professional actresses, let alone student performers, ever find.

Gregory Middleton gave his most layered performance as Linda’s on-again, off-again lover Tony. Middleton easily could have based his performance on one of the many mobster stereotypes living on DVDs. To his and Hardy’s credit, the actor dug much deeper and found a flawed guy flailing around in the wake of a woman he simply couldn’t swim away from. Tony tried but neither calm waters nor ugly women really suited him.

Moira Beale, Joey Pelletier, Sarah Murrell, Clint Snyder, Erica Wood and Jose-Luis Lopez rounded out the cast. In addition to appearing onstage, everyone worked behind the scenes to construct the set, build the costumes, gather the props and do publicity. That commitment to every aspect of the production most likely contributed to the tight ensemble feel of the show.

The university’s School of the Performing Arts sponsored “Savage in Limbo.” The day before the show opened, a report was released recommending the theater major be eliminated but the minor be retained.

If approved later this month by UM President Robert Kennedy, the changes would be phased in between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2014. Students now enrolled would be able to complete their programs.

What impact the elimination of the theater major would have on the performance budget is unclear. One only has to have seen “Savage in Limbo” and “Hair,” presented by the SPA in February, to understand how essential theater is in the life of the university.

These were two vastly different productions — one big and bold with striking technical work and a big budget, the other an intimate, shoestring production. Yet both were about community, with “Hair” drawing its audience into the tribe and “Savage in Limbo” letting theatergoers drop in at the bar in Shanley’s old neighborhood. Losing the opportunity to be part of either for just one night would be a tragedy not even the greatest comedy could undo.

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