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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Skin & Bone — Azuka Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theater

Skinbone interior 1The ramshackle bed and breakfast situated in an early 19th century clapboard house in Transfer, Florida, a fictional blip off the I-10 Interstate in the most rural, i.e. old traditional Southern , precincts of the Sunshine State, has been dormant for years as a place that boards visitors.  This setting for Jacqueline Goldfinger’s world premiere play, “Skin & Bone,” for Azuka Theatre, remains the home to two elderly sisters, Midge and Madge, who scratch out an existence as they wait for their wistfully-anticipated individual demises. For luxury, one sister spends occasional afternoons at a neighboring motel where she can lay in a soft bed and watch her “stories,” by which she means soap operas. The other sister longs for the good old days when the B&B drew guests that would prove to be particularly savory as company.

The sisters’ relative peace and isolation, to which they’ve become accustomed but from which neither derives much pleasure, is about to be disturbed by two unwanted circumstances. The house they have called home since birth has been condemned as unsafe for habitation, and Midge and Madge have received eviction notices that order them to vacate their beloved premises in a matter of a few short weeks. The county sheriff constantly sends a tall young man to serve papers on the sisters and warn them  their shelter has a date with the bulldozer he coincidentally operates. Midge, the flintier of the sisters and half the size of the sheriff’s messenger, sprays at him with an eye-stinging insecticide, to keep him at bay and punish him for picking on such harmless and unassuming old ladies. Maureen Torsney-Weir is particularly funny as she maneuvers the cans of repellant as if they were six shooters and she was Hopalong Cassidy staving off a gang of train robbers with a barrage of bullets or, in Midge’s case, misty projectiles of poison. When she runs out of Raid, Torsney-Weir’s Midge spits in the deputy’s face. She neither wants nor intends to move.

Just as the sheriff’s man becomes more persistent, a young woman arrives, dusty from the highway, and insists on staying at the sisters’ B&B. Madge, played with exasperated comic flair tempered with humanity by Drucie McDaniel, tries to stave off the customer. She even directs her to the motel where she indulges in soaps and offers to pay for the woman’s room. But the woman, Emma, armed with an ancient advertising brochure for the B&B, will not take no for an answer. She claims she can pay her way by helping to repair the house, clean it, and cook for the sisters. The B&B has sentimental value to her. The last entry in her late mother’s diary mentions the house and Midge and Madge favorably, so it is important to Emma to spend time in the last recorded place her mother had been.

Unlike Madge, Midge is eager to have Emma, played with a sort of exuberant obliviousness by Amanda Schoonover, as a guest. She sees in her potential for rekindling the palmier days of the B&B, especially after Emma says she can fix the barbecue where Midge presided over so many special meals that were particularly to her rather individual liking.

Clearly, Goldfinger has a lot brewing in her play which she writes as a homage to Southern Gothic, a style of storytelling that accentuates eccentric traits of seemingly ordinary people and packs a few surprises, usually of a grisly sort, along the way. “Gristly” sorts would probably be more accurate in terms of “Skin & Bone.” Goldfinger takes her time revealing pertinent information, entertaining with snappy, snappish dialogue between the sisters between salient comments that show something more is afoot than seems immediately apparent. The result is a funny, diverting play that has enjoyable meanders and twists and whiles away 90 minutes with enough laughs and enough sass and silliness to satisfy.

Don’t look for depth. “Skin & Bone” could touch on the meanness of depriving old people of their property, government haughtiness, or the joy, relief, and contentment Emma feels when she realizes she has found a place that was important to her mother as well as the identity of her father, but Goldfinger keeps matters on a humorous, sardonic plane and doesn’t delve into thorny issues or allow time or much occasion for sentiment. She is more intent on the comic battle between Midge and the sheriff’s aide, played with sweet charm and boyish lack of guile by Nathan Holt, who must be 6’8″ and towers over the diminutive Torsney-Weir and short McDaniel. She is even more fixed on the “Arsenic and Old Lace” meets “Psycho” sources of humor and Emma’s response to what she learns as she spends more and more time with the sisters.

Goldfinger keeps her play enjoyable. She has a way with phrasing dialogue that reminds one of the Southern style she draws on in “Skin & Bone.” Torsney-Weir and McDaniel make the most of what they’re given. As a team and in contrast to one another, the actresses keep all hopping briskly and drolly so that Goldfinger’s lines always pay. Torsney-Weir is blunt and direct in her delivery while McDaniel is more deliberative and physically expressive. Under the director of Allison Heishman, the pair provide a great time for the Azuka audience. Schoonover and Holt also fit into Heishman’s almost farcelike rhythms, so entertainment is prime and supersedes any thematic intentions, of which there are few hints anyhow. The Azuka production is aimed at the gut, in search of belly laughs, rather than the heart or mind. One may have a glimmer of “awwww,” as in when seeing a puppy for the first time, when Schoonover’s Emma spies a picture of her mother in one of the sisters’ photo albums and learns more about her father, but it is fleeting, as Heishman and company rightfully put comic business first. To do otherwise would a disaster. “Skin & Bone” can only work as a diverting flapdoodle. Which, by the way is fine in my book. I always say entertainment comes first, the level of production being more important than anything else. Depth or insight is a bonus. Art is a rare gift that seldom comes and is worthy of celebration when it does.

In that perspective, “Skin & Bone” does its job. It offers nothing of value you can take away from the theater. But it provides four actors with parts they can play to the hilt and memories and well constructed jokes and neatly plotted revelations. As a play and a production, it accomplishes what theater needs to do at its most elemental, provide folks with fun.

Maureen Torsney-Weir is spry and acidy as Midge. Canned insecticide is not her only weapon. She has a tongue that can sting through an armadillo’s hide and the energy and physical demeanor of Irene Ryan’s Granny Clampett as she bickers with her sister out of sheer aggressive contrariness and parries with Holt’s sheriff’s dude with strategic cantankerousness and a will to go unbullied.

Torsney-Weir shows a nicer, more compliant side when dealing with Schoonover’s Emma, who she is delighted to see and through whom she envisions a way to indulge in a past pleasure she despaired of ever enjoying again.

Torsney-Weir has a way with props. She is constantly holding something behind her back so the audience sees it and realizes it meaning or potential while it remains hidden from others on stage. The size difference between her and Holt, about three-to-one when you consider height and weight, makes for wonderful sight gags of which Heishman takes fully hilarious advantage. (Just imagine the 5’1″ Torsney-Weir spitting in the eye of the 6’8″ Holt, whose navel she barely reaches. Drucie McDaniel, even shorter than Torsney-Weir, comes up to his belt!)

Drucie McDaniel works in a completely different style from Torsney-Weir. She uses facial expressions and large gestures in addition to lines. Her performance is one of those ironic turns that relies on acting skills and body language yet seems a natural as the sun flooding the porch of a Florida B&B.

McDaniel’s Madge is more contemplative, contented, and complacent than Torsney’s Weir’s Midge. As she ages, Madge becomes more interested in religion and making peace with her Maker. She sees herself as an angel and doesn’t want to be flung in the fiery pit alleged to be below.

Unlike Midge, Madge wants anything tawdry in her past behind her. She loves the B&B. It’s her home. But she has taken the time to visit the retirement home in Transfer, where the sisters are advised to go following the demolition of their house, and is not resistant to the allure of cable TV, an ample patio, a hot tub, medical assistance on site, and three prepared meals a day like Midge is. She half longs to experience such relative comfort, amenities being scarce at the B&B.

McDaniel expresses Madge’s ambivalence well. She is the younger sister, and she wants to please everyone. That means not going too loudly against the stronger Midge’s wishes while trying to cooperate with Holt’s character, Ronnie, and head off to watch soap operas at will at the home.

Madge is often exasperated and overruled, and McDaniel plays that well. She is also adept in the scenes where she practically promises to finance a lifelong stay for Emma at Transfer’s motel if she will only agree to leave the B&B. Madge is not decisive or firm enough to prevail over the more obstinate Midge, Emma, or Ronnie, so McDaniel shows she is always in a minor dither wishing her common sense and better intentions would rule the day but going along with the more dominant personality.

Amanda Schoonover conveys youthful drive as Emma. She is a woman on a quest. Her father died before she was born. Her mother never returned from a trip in the direction of Transfer when Emma was an infant, and the girl has been raised in foster homes. Her only clue to her mother’s thoughts is a journal Emma has preserved, the last entry of which mentions a good time that lasted months at Midge and Madge’s B&B. Both sisters and Midge’s late husband are written about in that entry that fuels Emma’s curiosity and triggers her hope. Surely someone in Transfer must remember her Mom, Midge and Madge in particular. Schoonover shows Emma’s determination to pierce through the older ladies’ memories and piece together her life.

Schoonover is convincing when she boasts of how helpful Emma can be around the B&B. Why, she can fix a hole in the porch floor, rearrange furniture to be more tidy and convenient, do laundry, clean rooms, and cook for the sisters. From Emma’s point of view, she is a gift to Midge and Madge who need just the kind of assistance she can provide. She can earn her board at the B&B while pursuing information about her Mom.

Emma has a side to her character Schoonover is shrewd not to reveal until Goldfinger and Heishman make it imperative that she does. The actress covers the change well.

Nathan Holt is perfect as the small-town lug who doesn’t want to knock down the home where two old ladies live but has a job, orders, and need to support his wife and children. While Holt can be stern and mean in dealing with Midge’s toxic assaults on his eyes, he is basically a pleasant ordinary guy with an unpleasant assignment to fulfill. His security depends on doing as he’s bidden, so reluctantly or not, friendly and sympathetic toward Midge and Madge or not, Ronnie is intent to carryout the sheriff’s wishes, and Holt conveys the good ole boy in a bind in an amiable way that takes advantage of his size — He’s thin but sturdy in addition to being tall. — and handsomeness.

Prolific Dirk Durosette creates just the right look for the sisters’ parlor. He has the wallpaper peeling, the paint fading, and the Southern architectural appointments that grace the front of the house looking as if it will collapse into the dust leading to the porch at any minute. He also leaves room for Emma to redecorate with pieces at hand, a move that helps Heishman keep “Skin & Bone’s” pace efficient.

Katherine Fritz knows her characters and dresses them perfectly.

“Skin & Bone” runs through Sunday, March 23 at Azuka’s new home at the Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom Street (17th and Sansom), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with discounts for students, seniors, and artists. They can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or going online to www.azukatheatre.org.

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