Encore Michigan

‘Welcome To Paradise’ explores inter-generational love at Purple Rose

Review June 29, 2019 David Kiley

CHELSEA, Mich.–What makes a really good play in 2019? Is it the same set of characteristics as in 2000? 1990? 1960?

Welcome To Paradise, a new play by Julie Marino making its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre, attempts to tackle some time-tested themes that were as relevant fifty years ago as they are today. But Marino doesn’t quite give these themes currency or sufficient edge to make the themes crackle as they should with what is a superb cast.

Evelyn (Ruth Crawford) is a widow in her mid 70s who had some difficulty on her flight into an Caribbean island where she has a small house. Rory (Ryan Black) is a late 20s drifter who helps her all the way back to her home, and is invited to stay the night, a situation that extends into a few weeks. Evelyn’s son, the overbearing Greg (Paul Stroili) and his wife Trish (Rhiannon Ragland) and daughter Sydney (Meghan VanArsdalen) are about to arrive. Greg thinks his mother is slipping, just like his father did of Alzheimers, and is scheming to get power-of-attorney over her. And he is really not having the twenty-something Rory interloping.

Evelyn’s relationship with Rory deepens without becoming sexual. Yet, there is definite intimacy that grows between these two new friends, strangers brought together by the same flight. There is a bit of “old soul” quality in Rory, and a bit of a younger soul quality in Evelyn that allows them to perhaps meet in the middle at age 50 in their heads, and souls.

Families all over the world grapple with when older parents and grandparents can or cannot continue to live by themselves, or if they are making sound decisions about money, friends, business, etc. Families deal with parents who, after their first marriage ends in divorce or death, become involved with someone much younger. The wrinkle here is that Rory and Evelyn form a meaningful relationship without sex, though perhaps there is sexual tension? That’s up to the audience. Clearly, Crawford is an extremely attractive woman not of the knitting-in-a-rocking chair variety. The casting of her is critical to the watchability of the play. Black has the handsomeness of a Lands End catalogue model.

There are themes and plot-line that are ripe to be, frankly, much edgier than Marino writes them. Crawford is a delight, and she infuses Evelyn with texture upon texture as is appropriate for a compelling woman of a certain age who has lived and loved for three quarters of a century. She over-achieves on her part. Marino gives Evelyn some good lines, and between Crawford and Michelle Mountain’s keen direction she owns the stage when she is on it. Black plays Rory fairly sweet. But Marino doesn’t really give him all that much to work with. He has “walking headshot” good looks and physique, so he comes across as more boy-toy than soul mate. Rory seems like a nice fellow. He’s just not very interesting. Her affection and interest in him, then, isn’t very compelling or believable for more than a couple days diversion.

Paul Stroili has great energy as Greg. He is one of those actors who is blessed with a face that can convey more than the words he ends up speaking. There are moments in the play that if you are watching rather than listening he can make you guffaw, as well as make you feel a sudden lump in your throat. He’d make a great mime. Ragland nails her role as the wife and daughter-in law who wishes her husband would go to the store and maybe not come back. Vanarsdalen is also strong as the daughter who is “so over” her parents without slipping into stereotype.

Bartley Bauer’s set, the Caribbean villa living room, and Danna Segrest’s prop work is detailed and deft. The Purple Rose’s standards are very much in evidence here with no pretend stuff. The coffee in the pot is real, and I’m not sure but it may have even been hot. Tom Whalen’s sound design, too, is noteworthy: the ambient sounds of animals correct for a Caribbean island, cars off-stage, etc. The details are terrific.

Every good play starts with writing that is compelling and a story arc that draws you in and makes you care, trying to guess a little bit how it is going to come together. Welcome To Paradise is a bit too relaxed in dealing with these themes that have become pretty universal and are filled tension and tragedy, or should be.

The Purple Rose has a pretty rigorous process for vetting and developing a new play with a playwright. But one of the questions one asks as a play is developing is “what is happening here? why do I care? why am I engaging here?” In the case of Welcome To Paradise, instead of feeling the heat of a crackling fire of lives in conflict, I was more feeling the comfort of central air conditioning. But as the weather is turning steamier, maybe theater goers will appreciate that.

Week of 11/28/2022

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