End of the Affair

Happy loving couples: The philanderers of 'Orange Flower Water'
Ann Marsden

If playwright Craig Wright appeared comically dour at the opening of his last production, Molly's Delicious, at the Jungle Theater--and he did--tonight he seems particularly garrulous. It is the opening of his new play, titled Orange Flower Water, the third in a series of stories set in Pine City, Minnesota, and detailing the intersection between romance and bewilderment. Wright, a smallish man with closely cropped hair and, tonight, an appealingly broad smile, has cause for his present mood, which verges on ebullience. The next few weeks will be busy with travel, as he will be on a plane tomorrow to Washington D.C. for the Mammoth Theatre Company's almost simultaneous opening of Orange Flower Water. From there, it is on to Los Angeles, where he will begin a gig as a writer on HBO's Six Feet Under, coupled with flights to Nashville, where he has a budding career as a country songwriter, if you can believe it.

Indeed, at the opening, Wright regales us with tales from Nashville. The scene there sounds like a modern version of Tin Pan Alley, in which songwriters plug away at crafting likeable pop tunes in the morning, send them over to singers in the afternoon, and, if all goes well, sign a contract before supper. Wright tells us an alarming, but very funny, story of an incessantly high songwriter with dual penchants for nontraditional basketball (in Wright's story, the songwriter suddenly turns to the playwright and asks him, "Have you ever played basketball with a football?") and the religious writings of early Christian mystics.

It is a long way from Pine City, which Wright describes as "imaginary," perhaps unaware that there really is a Pine City in Minnesota. It's located on the banks of Cross Lake and the Snake River, and is home to a theater troupe called the Heritage Players, some lovely beaches, and a gazebo. Wright's Pine City, in the meanwhile, is home to little but bad romantic decisions and regret, documented in his trilogy, which includes The Pavilion and Molly's Delicious. This new play, which takes a short and rather grim look at adultery, is an abbreviated heartbreaker. The production is directed with the sort of artful minimalism director Bain Boehlke occasionally brings to his work: The stage is set with nothing more than a bed and, in the distance, four chairs. A quartet of actors fills these seats, waiting on their opportunity to make the decisions that will lead to the collapse of two marriages.

Boehlke has accumulated quite a collection of actors over the years, and here he taps three of his best: Jennifer Blagen, Terry Hempleman, and Amy McDonald. All three characters exhibits a mix of the wistful, the brutish, and the bitter, and Wright's script offers each a moment that is comical paired with a moment that is humiliating. Hempleman, for example, has a short scene in which he writes a pleading, drunken letter to his wife, who has just left him for the town pharmacist. "You are the prettiest thing in my life," he beseeches pitifully.

The pharmacist in question is played by Brian Goranson, new to the Jungle stage but well cast, as the actor has spent the past year essaying a series of quietly pained characters. Goranson has a wry, round face and a slightly strained manner, and he pursues his adulterous affair in this play with the same plodding bullishness with which he later regrets it. Goranson has the last lines in the play, an oddly optimistic coda in which he reads a letter to one of the affair's unexpected players. It's a keen bit of writing from Wright, delivered with unfeigned tenderness by Goranson. Apparently, baffling, hurtful decisions can, on occasion, produce a thing that is genuinely good.

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