THEATER REVIEW: ‘Endearment’ makes the leap from screen to stage

“Terms of Endearment” / The Theater at Copake Grange

IT’S NOT NEWS that grandmas are not what they used to be. Shirley McClain’s Aurora proved it in the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment.” Now, in 2019, Constance Lopez as Aurora speaks her saucy mind and warns us in the first scene that she cares a lot about appearance and status.

Lopez later walks the stage in an elegant, plummy-purple-slit-up-the-calf dress and high heels–and even later in a narrow, mauve, high-waisted skirt with creamy soft top. Hooray for Kimberly Mauch costumes. And a special hooray for gram-glam!

Back in the eighties, it may still have seemed a bit naughty for a slim, vigorous, widowed grandmother to initiate some joyous sex with a neighbor. Now? Ho-hum. But this play is about Aurora’s role as mother. Mama’s borealis nature sometimes includes hurtful words to her daughter. The two cavil and connect; they talk on the phone every morning. The story is built around struggles to create or maintain loving connections–and arrive at the double meaning of “terms.”

In Aurora’s opinion, Emma’s husband, Flap (in the movie, played by Jeff Daniels) is incapable of meeting mama’s elevated, class-drenched standards. But in this production, Zachary Nayer brings an odd and admirable sturdiness to the character. His Flap is clear and unapologetic about who he is. The breeze in which he waves seems self-directed.

Aurora’s next-door neighbor is retired-astronaut, Garrett Breedlove (the Jack Nicholson role, played here by Matthew Leinung). Leinung is a much more believable astronaut-type than Nicholson, even though he doesn’t get all the Nicholson juice out of comedy lines. He’s sexier too and more charming. He plays the drunken, womanizing jerk, who evolves into he-man, loveable hero. An actor needs a lot of charm to get away with some of Breedlove’s lines. Few could say with impunity to the lady next door, “I don’t want to blow smoke up your ass.” Still, he is the salt and red pepper of the play and probably saves it from excessive plucking of heartstrings.

Voice! Voice! Voice! Acting on a stage obviously has a huge spoken-words component. It takes voice. While Karissa Payson in the role of daughter Emma has lots to offer from the stage, she does not have adequate voice. Hers is nasal. Her pitch range encompasses about five steps. There is not enough of it to carry a character. Payson faces two additional problems not of her own making: 1. a death scene (from stage, how does an actor vocally “project” a death scene?), and 2. a theater with questionable acoustics and apparently no sound techie.

Brian Yorck, as the unctuous Maise is the mealy-mouthed doctor you love to hate. Yorck could not be better. When the astronaut threatens him with broken legs and death, there are muffled cheers from out front. It’s a moment from our John Wayne past, when female characters were just “too emotional” to get things done, and male characters came to the rescue with their violence or threats-of-violence. Sorry to say, it can still resonate.

You won’t realize it until you read the program: Nicole Molinski plays one supporting role and two smaller ones. She skillfully makes them all utterly individual.

Stephen Sanborn’s direction makes “direction” almost imperceptible, which is exactly right for a play of this period and genre. The goal is to get so real that direction passes unnoticed.

The set is a kind of shorthand. Designer Michael Rivenburg, scenic artist, Michael Virtuoso, and Sanborn have created three performing areas, making good use of the Grange’s cozy stage-right annex to create geographic distance—keeping Aurora’s bedroom clearly to stage-right–and placing a big, square screen stage-left, with projected watery blues suggesting the astronaut’s backyard pool or a window indicating the side of his house.

Should a playgoer be amused or irritated by the character names in this play? Note: Aurora “dawns” (colorfully); Dr. Maise is cowardly “yellow”; astronaut Breedlove “does”; and Flap, well. . . you must decide whether he is a verb or a noun.

“Terms of Endearment” runs through Sunday, February 24. Tickets may be reserved at 518-392-6293 or 866-811-4111. The Theater at Copake Grange, 628 Empire Road, Copake, NY 12516

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