General 9-8-2003

Theater Review: Starting Gate’s “Period of Adjustment”

“Period of Adjustment” runs Thursday-Sunday through September 27 at the Loading Dock Theater, 10th & Sibley, St. Paul. 7:30 p.m. $16. 651-645-3503.

Tennessee Williams is famous for creating in his plays bold Southern characters with large personalities, a recipe for dramatic conflict if ever there was one. In “Period of Adjustment,” billed as a “serious comedy,” he manages both humor and conflict in an investigation of mid-life crisis through a portrait of two troubled marriages.

The play, which opened this weekend at Loading Dock Theater in St. Paul and runs through September 27, makes a promising beginning as the first of four shows in Starting Gate Productions’ second season. Although the pace is at times a bit uneven, overall Director Brian Goranson delivers a solid and enjoyable performance.

One needn’t look hard for the marital strife at the center of “Period of Adjustment.” The lights go up in the first scene on the lone figure of Ralph Bates (Don Eitel). Bates is a man spending Christmas Eve in 1959 alone in his home, his wife having left him after he quit his job. Living in a town called “High Point,” Bates’ house has been built over a cavern, and is slowly sinking into it an inch or two a year. It’s a metaphor for his life – at 33, a man may not be exactly middle-aged, he says, “but you’re in the shadow of it and it’s a mighty scary shadow.”

His solitude is soon interrupted, however, by the abrupt arrival of Isabel Haverstick (Leanna Hieber), the very new wife of his old friend and war buddy George (Stephen Frethem). Their marriage, too, seems in crisis – within moments of arriving, George inexplicably drives away, leading his wife to believe she has been abandoned on Bates’ doorstep.

Hieber’s performance is the glue that holds this production together; she makes the most of her role as a young woman disappointed to find that she has married too hastily. Arriving at Bates’ home in a rare Tennessee snowstorm, she might just as well be referring to her marriage when she nervously tells him that this is her “first acquaintance with snow.”

Although he is a complete stranger to her, Bates tries to console the new Mrs. Haverstick, telling her that she and George are just going through a “period of adjustment.” As Ralph, Eitel is the most likable male character in the play, a good-hearted man who admits his own role in his marital problems: “I had it coming, marrying a girl who didn’t attract me.”

The scenes between Hieber and Eitel are the strongest in this production; sadly, Goranson shies away from developing Williams’ underlying homoeroticism in the scenes between George and Ralph in his direction. Frethem’s character compels less sympathy from the audience than perhaps he could; the ex-fighter pilot afflicted with untreatable tremors comes across as arrogant and crass rather than insecure toward his new wife.

Only in the second act do we meet Ralph’s wife, Dorothea Bates (Jenner Snell), whose return paves the way for a reconciliation between both couples. As Christmas Eve winds down, the final outcome is far from certain, but Williams has navigated his characters safely through what he would undoubtedly call a “period of adjustment.”