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Theater review: Strong Performances Greet ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’

Say Goodnight, Gracie 1A revival of Say Goodnight, Gracie could be a dated walk down memory lane. In the hands of good actors, though, Street Theatre Company’s latest show is a fresh slice of 1970s life.

Ralph Pape’s play ran off-Broadway for 400 performances in 1978 and was staged a year later by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Well-regarded actor/director Austin Pendleton helmed the Steppenwolf production with a cast that included company stalwarts John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Glenne Headley, Francis Guinan and Jeff Perry. A TV adaptation won Pape an Emmy.

The story centers on the first “TV Generation” – the title (which is also the name of a one-man play about George Burns by Rupert Holmes) refers to Burns and Gracie Allen, who were among the stars of what has often been called television’s “Golden Age” in the 1950s. Its setting is 1976 New York.

We find ourselves in the apartment of Jerry (Jeremy Maxwell). The young actor has just had another unsuccessful audition, and his impish friend Steve (Alan Smith), a would-be TV writer, isn’t making things better with his silly attempts to lift Jerry’s spirits. We soon meet his kindly girlfriend Ginny (Melissa Silengo), who is looking forward to attending the trio’s 10-year high school reunion with their fellow alum Bobby (Ryan Williams).

Jerry makes it clear he doesn’t want to go, even after Bobby, a free-wheeling musician, arrives with his good-natured gal pal Catherine (Laura Crockarell), an airline stewardess (yes, “stewardess” was still in use then) who’s very open about her sexuality and other aspects of her life.

Say Goodnight, Gracie 2Not surprisingly, these five folks on the cusp of 30 aren’t sure where they (or the world around them) are headed. That is essentially true for each generation, but for an age group that went from the certitude of the Eisenhower era to the gray clouds of the Nixon years, such concern is very understandable (and justified now given all the upheaval in American society during the last six decades).

While Pape’s one-act has a dramatically abrupt “Let’s end this now” finish, in STC’s hands this play still commands and deserves our attention. Why? For starters, seasoned director Paul Cook has assembled a cast that handles the laugh lines as well as the pain and anxiety behind the humor equally well.

All of the actors utilize excellent timing for delivering, or reacting to, the sometimes sharp-edged barbs in Pape’s script, but they also know how to dig deeper when characters reveal their inner workings. One brilliant example of the latter is Crockarell’s virtuosic delivery of Catherine’s narrative about the life-altering impact the 1962 Cuban missile crisis had on her. These performers know how to shift gears onstage just as we all do in everyday life without making anything appear prepared.

Steven Steele’s set and lighting design provide a thoroughly realistic framing for the play. The same highly believable quality is also present in J.J. Street’s sound and Lynda Bayer’s costumes. All the elements come together in support of a cast that makes Say Goodnight, Gracie feel like a brand new play.

Say Goodnight, Gracie 3Say Goodnight, Gracie continues through June 24 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pk.). Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors plus various specials) and more information are available by calling (615) 554-7414 or visiting www.streettheatrecompany.org. Note: This show contains adult language and situations.

*Photos by Heavenly Perspective Photography courtesy Street Theatre Company.

Photo 1 (l to r): Jeremy Maxwell, Melissa Silengo, Alan Smith, Ryan Williams, Laura Crockarell

Photo 2 (l to r): Jeremy Maxwell, Melissa Silengo, Alan Smith, Ryan Williams, Laura Crockarell

Photo 3 (l to r, back row): Alan Smith, Ryan Williams, Laura Crockarell; (front row): Jeremy Maxwell, Melissa Silengo

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).