Theater Spotlight: Third

Michal Daniel

at Guthrie Theater McGuire Proscenium Stage
through March 30

Wendy Wasserstein's final play takes place at an unnamed elite liberal arts college in New England during the inexorable ramp-up to the Iraq war. Lit prof Laurie (Sally Wingert) is in a bad way, staring at TV news with simmering rage, facing the onset of menopause, and dealing with her daughter going off to college, increasing distance from her husband, and her father, Jack (Raye Birk), cruising headlong into dementia. Wingert in the early action is both brittle and charming, laying out her character's distinctive take on King Lear (Regan and Goneril were the real heroes, in so many words) with a self-satisfaction that belies her uncertainty and neediness, when daughter Emily (Emily Gunyou Halaas) arrives home on spring break. You get a sense that someone is going to have to suffer, and in walks student Woodson Bull III (Tony Clarno), a clean-cut kid on the wrestling team who grates on Laurie with his sunny cheerfulness and outwardly Republican tendencies (to a friend, Laurie rages against him as "a walking Red State"). And when Woodson turns in a Shakespeare paper that evinces a lot more sophistication than Laurie thinks he possesses, she charges him with plagiarism and hauls his ass before a review committee. Director Casey Stangl grasps a knowing, subtle tone from the script, which sets up Woodson as a potential pompous son of privilege and Laurie as the leftist crusader set on cleaning up her own patch of the woods. Things turn out differently; Clarno infuses his work with the edge of a young man whose impressions of privilege are a lot more complex than those of the self-righteous crowd around him, and Wingert convinces us that her character's stereotyping and knee-jerk malice are ossified forms of something that worked for her earlier in life but which now has ceased to serve its purpose. In a haunting, beautiful scene toward the end, Laurie finds her father wandering the town, his mind almost gone, and she dances with him under the moon in a poignant farewell. Then Laurie finds Woodson to apologize, a detente both plausible and delivered with integrity. It's a play very much of its moment, but Wasserstein's affection for her characters and their journeys is evident from start to finish.

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