There are three very good reasons to see the West End Players production of Joe Calarco’s comedy/drama “Walter Cronkite is Dead.” Their names are Kate Durbin, Leslie Wobbe, and Anna Blair—the stars and director of this remarkable evening of intimate theatre.
[Full disclosure: I am a former board member at West End and have known both actresses and the director for many years now. I have not, however, been involved in this production in any way.]
|L-R: Leslie Wobbe and Kate Durbin|
Photo: John Lamb
First performed in 2010 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and directed by the playwright, “Walter Cronkite is Dead” has a setup that has served as the basis for many a comedy sketch: the two utterly mismatched strangers who are thrown together by circumstances and proceed to annoy the peeps out of each other. The classic Monty Python “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine comes immediately to mind.
Calarco’s mismatched pair are the distant and elegant Margaret (Durbin) and the voluble, intrusive Patty (Wobbe). Apocalyptically bad weather has stranded both of them in Reagan National Airport. Having found the last free “two top” table at a bar, Margaret is working her way through a carafe of wine and obsessively rereading an article on why flying is safe. Her concentration is quickly interrupted by the explosive arrival of Patty, hauling around an excessively large roller bag, handbag, and other travel paraphernalia, and yakking loudly on her cell phone.
In a virtuoso display of passive-aggressive wheedling, Patty bullies Margaret into surrendering the other chair at her table—the last remaining seat in an airport rapidly starting to look like a refugee camp—and sparks begin to fly.
Patty and Margaret could be clichés capable of supporting nothing more than a brief blackout, but Calarco, with a substantial assist from the splendid work of Durbin, Wobbe, and Blair, doesn’t let that happen.
Patty’s persistent intrusions into Margaret’s physical and personal space (portrayed with subtlety and finesse by Wobbe and Durbin) are played for laughs at first, but as the former draws the latter unwillingly into conversation, it soon becomes apparent that both characters have emotional depths that make them fully realized beings. Patty’s comments on the way the quality of the light in the airport reminder her of Italy show her to be more perceptive than she at first appears. Margaret’s longing for the simpler times of Walter Cronkite and the Kennedys (whom she idolized to the extent of naming her children after them) reveal internal conflicts and longings that belie her well-groomed exterior.
As the play progresses, the two spar, commiserate, get a bit tanked, and finally learn, to quote Blair, to “look past the stereotypes and see the nuances” of each other. When the skies finally clear and Margaret takes her leave, neither woman is quite the person they were before.
Most of this is implicit in the script, but it takes a pair of experienced and smart actors like Durbin and Wobbe to fully realize it. They have both so fully internalized their characters that they truly become them on stage. Both women let us see their characters’ complex inner lives That’s art, friends.
So is Blair’s direction, which finds opportunities for physical and dramatic movement that aren’t necessarily there on the page. Calarco’s script has its awkward moments—most notably a political rant by Patty that seems to come out of nowhere—and he seems to start running out of ideas about two-thirds of the way through, but Blair and her cast have made everything so real by that point that it hardly matters.
There is no set designer credited, but whoever came up with the name of the bar (“The Gipper Lounge”) and the list of drink specials (the “Jellybean” and the “Just Say No-jito”) deserves a tip of the hat. The same is true of Mary Beth Winslow’s pre-show music, which sounds exactly like what you’d expect to hear in an airport bar in 2010. Thanks also to Will Shaw as the unseen airport announcer with his calm reminders of meteorological chaos.
There’s a lot to offer for your entertainment dollar on local stages this weekend, but the sheer theatrical virtuosity on view in West End’s “Walter Cronkite is Dead” makes it a rare pre-holiday treat. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, December 7 through 10, at the Union Avenue Christian Church in the Central West End. For more information, visit the WEPG web site.