The Living End

Preparing for the old-folks' orgy? Marcus (Warren C. Bowles) and Dotha (Sally Wingert) in <B>Winter</B>

Preparing for the old-folks' orgy? Marcus (Warren C. Bowles) and Dotha (Sally Wingert) in Winter

"How strange it is to outlive yourself." So observes an ailing and elderly man who smells alternately like urine or baby powder as he watches whistling furniture movers dismantle his home, his world, before his eyes. The man is Marcus (Warren C. Bowles), the centerpiece of Claudia Allen's Winter, playing at the Mixed Blood Theatre. And it is his common-sense insight and gruff warmth that permeate this exploration into vitality and mortality.

Marcus, rendered largely helpless by a stroke, is waited on by his wife of 50 years, Miriam (Marquetta Senters), a woman who tidies their antiques-filled home with a vengeance and carries a grudge as big as her husband's motorized wheelchair. It seems that five decades earlier, Marcus had asked a woman named Dotha (Sally Wingert in eccentric-widow mode) to marry him, until her repeated rejections led him to "settle for" Miriam. Miriam's long-simmering hurt is aggravated by the fact that Dotha and her farmer daughter Ora (Faye M. Price) insist on visiting Marcus. As Marcus gazes out the window looking for his old flame, Miriam hisses venomous asides behind his back: "If your girlfriend comes, start the orgy without me."

Only when Marcus dozes off can Miriam drop her defenses and reveal the love she feels. Meanwhile, Marcus, Dotha, and Ora enjoy each other's ghastly stories (Ora taking a baseball bat to her piglet-eating sow, Marcus recalling his cousin who built an electric chair for cats), but it is not all banter and jokes. Dotha has become a well-practiced visitor, stopping in on her infirm contemporaries but never helping them deal with real issues of physical decline and death. "I'm not good in these situations," she explains offhandedly. "Death throws me."

The struggle for happiness in the shadow of debilitation is ultimately the subject of Winter, which playwright Allen deftly handles through wry humor and keenly perceived detail. When a bewildered Marcus asks Miriam if they had ever been in love, he reminisces: "We used to share chocolates. You have to love someone if you eat their half-eaten chocolates, don't you?"

All these telling details are woven together by the sure hand of director Peggy Shannon. After a few genuine surprises, Marcus and Dotha find themselves in the same nursing home, where Dotha curses her fate by lashing out at her daughter. But a few moments later, the two old friends sit side by side, watching from their window as Ora leaves. Memorable performances are often born in the quiet between lines, and Wingert's cramped and grudging wave goodbye is one of those moments.

When Alfred Hitchcock made Rope, a miniature thriller based on the Leopold-Loeb murders, he did it partly as a cinematic experiment: The entire film was shot in one location so as to simulate a continuous take. Years later Hitchcock dubbed it "quite nonsensical."

While the script is a bit more appropriate onstage, where a single setting is typical, this original adaptation of Rope by the Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company still seems a brittle and bloodless exercise. In the first few minutes, we learn that two well-bred young men, Richard (played with oily arrogance by Jacob Heinrichs) and his nervous lover and accomplice Nathan (Aaron Oster), have killed their prep-school classmate and dumped his body into a trunk in their living room. Then they invite friends over for dinner, including the deceased fellow's parents and fiancée. Richard, the maestro of this grotesquerie, is acting out his former professor's theory that murder should be an art reserved for the elite and practiced on inferiors. Naturally the professor, Rupert (Erik Steen), is in attendance to give an affable recounting of his Nietzschean "superman" claptrap.

Director Jeff Redman and cast do what they can with a play built around lame jokes and the "suspense" of whether any guest will open the chest. But Rope finally hangs itself when the curious Rupert discovers the body and, shocked, instantly and weepily recants his long-held beliefs. When the core idea of a play, however perverse, is abandoned in the blink of an eye, the center collapses and what could have been profound becomes mere piffle. It's "thriller" as shaggy-dog story.