'Head': Putting life into the writing

March 02, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Writers often think of themselves as observers instead of participants. In "Joined at the Head," a novelist named Maggie keeps insisting she's merely the play's narrator, instead of its main character.

But Maggie fails to maintain an objective distance in this sensitive drama, which is receiving a strong production at the Vagabond Players.

On the surface, the subject is the sort of maudlin stuff that shows up on disease-of-the-week TV docudramas. But one of the impressive aspects of Catherine Butterfield's script is its un-TV-style theatricality.

This primarily takes the form of Maggie's narration, which breaks the naturalistic framework. But as the action progresses, the two other principal characters unexpectedly interject their own bits of direct audience address. These interjections come at moments timed for maximum effect -- whether comic or tragic -- and that effect is reinforced by Lance Lewman's insightful direction and the astute performances of his lead actors.

The potential tear-jerker plot is set in Boston, where Maggie is publicizing her best-selling novel (which shares the play's clunky title). She receives a call from Jim, her high school sweetheart, whom she hasn't seen since they graduated 20 years earlier. He invites her to dinner and informs her as they are about to enter his house that his wife -- also named "Maggy," but with a "y' -- has cancer.

Though they were schoolmates, the two Maggies traveled in different circles. Jim's wife was a cheerleader; Maggie, the novelist, was an anti- establishment firebrand. Except for Jim, the women appear to have little in common. But Maggie feels an instant bond with her ailing hostess -- so much so that she prolongs her stay in Boston. Yet she can't bring herself to visit Maggy in the hospital.

One major difference does separate the two women. Despite her success and acceptance as a novelist, Maggie is a lonely woman with no close relationships -- even with her family. Jim and his wife, on the other hand, share a love so deep, Maggie finds it "almost painful to watch."

Much of the reason for Maggie's loneliness, she discovers, is that she has extended her writer's sensibility too far. Unlike Jim's wife, who savors every moment, Maggie has been attempting to observe, instead of participate in, her own life.

Director Lewman has cast as the two Maggies actresses who bear a slight physical resemblance, but more notable are the distinct attitudes they bring to their roles. As the novelist, Katherine Lyons exhibits a tinge of reserve, whereas Rebecca Joseph's Maggy is suffused with warmth.

Although this warmth carries over to Jim Hild's portrayal of her husband, his performance reaches its height in a monologue in which he reveals the feelings beneath his ideal-husband exterior. The scene might easily have been a saccharine plea for sympathy, but Hild's restraint makes it heart-rending.

These three are ably supported by a half-dozen actors in multiple roles. Standouts include Steve Goldklang's comic depiction of a pompous talk show host and Anne B. Mulligan's portrayal of a motherly innkeeper.

On an obvious level, "Joined at the Head" is about the way the proximity to death can increase the appreciation of life. But it also explores the theme of self-awareness -- not in terms of selfishness, but in terms of relating to others. The play does this by serving as its own best example: Its characters form a memorable bond with the audience. Maybe it should have been called "Joined at the Heart."

'JOINED AT THE HEAD'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: Through March 19. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $9 and $10

Call: (410) 563-9135

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