Watching the formidable Julie Harris on Victory Garden's mainstage, one understands why this woman has such a distinguished career in the theater, including garnering more Tony wins than any other actress. Julie Harris is that rare performer who brings no affectations to her craft and makes her work look deceptively effortless. In the world premiere production of local playwright Claudia Allen's Fossils, Harris plays Carrie, a retired schoolteacher vacationing at a bed and breakfast in northern Michigan. Harris' Carrie is charming, and you immediately fall in love with this woman who does not let age play a part in her choices. Playwright Allen has formed an amusing, endearing character with her creation of Carrie ( even if she did borrow her history from Lillian Hellman ) . Finding a match for the talents of Harris must have been no easy task, but Victory Gardens, and director Sandy Shinner, have succeeded with Ann Whitney, in the role of Abigail, a retired college economics professor, as flinty and steel gray as her hair and a woman for whom self-denial has become a way of life. Whitney probably has the more difficult task in making her character likable, because Abigail is cold, bordering on harsh, yet we warm to her as she reveals a lifetime of sacrifice and secrets that have made her into a strong, yet sad, woman.
Fossils brings these two opposing forces together for a summertime idyll along the shores of Lake Michigan, where the two, unknown to each other until their solitary vacations throw them together, begin the process of fusing histories, outlooks and memories. Credit director Shinner with keeping the performances understated and believable and overseeing the creation of a little world that's so real one can almost smell the water of Lake Michigan and hear its pounding surf. Jeff Bauer's scenic design is detailed ( right down to the faded games and jigsaw puzzles left for guests on the weathered porch where all the action takes place ) ; Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's sound design is subtle, but heightens the mood with the quiet sounds of summer; and Todd Hensley's lighting design is superb: waxing and waning from early morning to twilight to evening and back again.
Fossils, as a production, has so many good things going for it that it's even more of a shame that its script is such dreck. In spite of Claudia Allen's winning abilities at creating sympathetic characters, natural dialogue, and engaging, she has crafted a story which is not only hit-you-over-head obvious and predictable, but which is also plagued by major credibility problems. It seems as though Allen doesn't trust her audience enough to let us draw our own conclusions; she feels compelled to spell each emotional response out. Worse, the play's resolution is so unbelievable that it ruined the entire production. I don't want to spoil the play's conclusion, but Allen expects us to swallow that one of the character's decades-long prejudices and self-denial could be washed away in a matter of minutes. She also expects us to believe that Julie Harris's character, so vibrant, iconoclastic, and full of passion, would opt to mourn a lost love for thirty years. It would have been so much better if Allen had taken a subtler route to resolving how these two women come together, if perhaps she had shown us just a hint of a beginning of certain walls crumbling down, rather than knocking those walls down with a wrecking ball.
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It's a real testimony to Harris and Whitney's thespian skills that Fossils remains an entertaining evening in spite of the complete lack of reality with which the playwright has saddled its conclusion.