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Michael & Edie — Villanova Theatre at Vasey Hall

14354_10152796956241478_6127903111022506154_nRachel Bonds’s characters love and are gifted at prose. As both speakers and appreciators.

The title figures of her play, “Michael & Edie,” work in a second-hand bookstore in a major city with a subway, wintry weather, and access to classic foreign films. Michael’s reverie is devoted to writing love letters to Edie, with whom he falls in love at first sight on the day he reports to work as her colleague. Edie expresses her talent for language in her clear conversation, sometimes terse, rarely revealing, but always precise. Her reverie, or fantasy, is a running conversation with her late brother, Ben, who recalls the siblings’ history in the form of a short story. Edie begins most talks with Ben my rating the quality of her day in a number from one to ten. “Five” is about the highest she gets, and she usually tells Ben her reason for being so low.

Bonds’s most important premise in creating and writing for her characters is a truth we all know but rarely discuss or express. While on the surface, Michael and Edie are high-functioning young people, starting off adult life on their bookstore wages and saying reasonable, or even amusing, things, they are each troubled in significant ways, and each primarily because of a sibling.

Edie and Ben are literally foundlings when they are given shelter and nurture by a man who has a house full of books and a large dose of empathy. Michael’s family is more typically dysfunctional, but his younger sister is clinically depressed, mostly without treatment, and has taken to living in the family bathroom, where she too has reveries that go deep and are expressed articulately.

The way Bonds weaves the rationality that make Edie, Ben, Michael, and his sister, Sarah, so real and so clear-thinking on one level and so emotionally scarred and damaged on another is profoundly moving. In an entertaining way, that is made exponentially engrossing in James Ijames’s sweet, moody, yet hard and unflinching production of “Michael & Edie” for Villanova Theatre in the university’s Vasey Hall.

Ijames and his remarkable cast of Mitchell Bloom, Sophia Barrett, Kyle Fennie, Sarah Ochocki, and John Baxter capture the romantic lilt and flirtatious newness of Michael and Edie’s attraction while deftly revealing the obstacles that prevent this course of possibly true love from running smooth, peeling back the onion-skin layers within the characters, and adding fantasy and, in the case of Baxter’s bookstore owner, oddity that fits in with and enhances the gripping atmospheric effect of the production. You want to know everyone and his or her entire story, and remarkably, though Bonds is compact and sticks basically with what you need to know to provide a complete enough picture, Ijames and company fill in the blanks. All of the characters, including Michael and Edie’s employer, are presented and played in a way that generates empathetic understanding even as you despair about how the buffets of life, incidental scrapes and knocks included among roundhouse blows, affect four young people who have the wit and language be so vibrant and who, in a way three of the four should be able to control, turn out so unfulfilled and sad. (The fourth, Ben, does not have the chance to command his fate.)

Bonds is an exciting writer. She is able to mesh the literal, and literary, with the absurd in a way that never seems strange or disturbing to the tenor or flow of her play. Instead of the supernatural grating or seeming expedient and gimmicky, Bonds makes it integral. Her use of fantasy and reverie advance her narrative and theme instead of cheapening them or making it appear as if the author has run out of ideas and is resorting to populist hoodoo. Scenes involving Sarah and Ben retain the tone of “Michael & Edie” while taking it to a new dimension and putting Sarah’s decision on a footing that makes it softer and more wrenching at once.

Ijames incisively establishes the sensibility that makes all of Bond’s dramatic machinations work so touchingly. Bonds creates the subtle roadmap. Ijames creates the spell. He keeps all, even the fantasy, on a literal plane that lets you see all that is simmering underneath each character’s veneer of coping but that emphasizes the worth and giftedness of each character so the underlying stresses, traumas, and paralyses loom more poignantly, uncomfortably, and sorrowfully than if they were overt and not so skillfully masked by pleasantness in the workplace, potentially budding romance, or relationships that could conceivably foster healing and saving.

“Michael & Edie” is about the depression most of us fight and hide as we proceed through life. Michael seems to have buoyancy to bounce back. Time we the audience won’t witness will tell. Edie leads two lives, a haunted one at home that is relieved by reading and communing with a palpable if necessarily absent Ben, and an efficient, purposeful, and cordial one at work where she has the social skills and the satisfaction of Michael’s flattering attention to keep her level (even though her days never rate higher than a five). Sarah is lost in her malaise. Michael was her lone counterweight in struggle against deepening despondency, and he is in another city, a long train ride away, and misses or ignores cues that might, but only might, make a difference to Sarah.

Bonds plans all out with the precision she gives her characters’ dialogue. Ijames creates a mood that keeps all real and emotionally affecting while Bloom and Barrett create faceted people you want so much to have joy and bounty as you watch them decline, almost unwittingly or unwillingly, into the hardships life puts in their way.

Ochocki is particularly heartbreaking as Sarah, a teen, or at least one who is in school, who, for all of her obvious intelligence and connection to her brother, cannot take life lightly enough to make her place in it. Fennie, who in literal ways has the worst happen to him, does well at portraying the cheerful Ben, who can only live in imagination as the raisonneur who works to keep the women’s lives on as even a keel as one can. Baxter adds a note of solid reality, then a spate of comic relief as the bookstore owner.

Ijames’s production is so sensitive to Bonds’s creation and composition. Ijames impressively finds the rhythm to make all revelations dramatic and affecting, whether our hearts are warmed or our wish for the characters’ well-being is upset. He gives “Michael & Edie” a realistic underpinning that makes its short flights of romance and genuine peeks and journeys into despair alternatively whimsical and heartrending in the correct proportion. He endows his characters with openness and truth that underscores the troubles they harbor internally or, in Sarah’s case, makes the hopeless of her depression moving. As a play and a production, “Michael & Edie” impresses mightily. It is charming, in the context of compelling or mesmerizing, to behold, and its effect, both because of Bonds’s knowledge of people and Ijames’s caring direction, lasts past your time in the theater.

Mitchell Bloom has been popular with directors at Villanova. He has appeared in almost every production during his two years in the school’s graduate theater program, and the range and quality of his performances shows you why he is constantly cast.

Bloom distinguished himself as the sensible friend who has the whimsy to do a drag act in David Ives’s adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” “The School for Lies,” as the debonairly generous husband in Coward’s “Fallen Angels,” and as a sincere lover among a brutal horde who want to wed solely for conjugal rights in “Big Love.” He was also notable as Death in Villanova’s brilliant production of “Everyman” and as the philandering brother in “The Light in the Piazza.”

Bloom is actor to watch. He is someone you want to see every time you come to a play at Villanova and should do well after he finishes his degree.

“Michael and Edie” is Bloom’s first lead role, no less a challenge than some others, especially in “School for Lies” and “Big Love,” but one that lets all of his talents be seen.

I mention James Ijames’s emphasis on seeming reality. Bloom exudes it. He is reading for reading, gesture for gesture, and emotion for emotion, the embodiment of a young man leaving a troubled family to embark on an independent life in a city that, for now, offers a minimum wage turn in a bookstore for sustenance.

Bloom seems to have intimate acquaintance with the more matter-of-fact side of Michael. He lolls groggily 10 extra minutes in his bed before facing reality, emerging from slumber, and heading to work, teeth conscientiously brushed, shoulder bag well stocked for the day. His attitude towards Edie is adoring, but from an unfrightening distance, his attitude towards John amused and respectful.

Bloom doesn’t betray signs of acting. He looks, as he usually does, as if he’s living the day-to-day existence of his character. His plangent normality makes it logical when Michael, a man just tasting life on his own, makes unexpected decisions that involve his family. It explains his approach to Edie, to whom he must a some point confess interest.

You also see Michael’s concern for Sarah, his only sibling and one who is left behind in a home Michael fled to avoid one more day, let alone year, of parental bickering, his mother pretending everything is all right as she bakes five pies and a multi-pound turkey for three people on Thanksgiving, his father escaping all via tools and television in the basement, and his sister retreating to the bathroom where she sleeps in the tub while wearing mismatched pajamas. The filial intimacy between Michael and Sarah is symbolized by the tin cans they use (Smurf play-doh cans) in lieu of telephones to communicate.

Michael is a twentysomething who has seen life but is relatively untouched by it. His own adventures, a career beyond the used bookstore, and romance with a woman, possibly one as prepossessing and as witty as Edie, await. Or do they? Bloom plays Michael’s maturing moments as deftly and as realistically as he plays Michael’s everyday spunk and will to keep things light and pleasant. You feel more for Michael as he confronts pain and disillusionment because Bloom has kept him so youthfully sunny and generally optimistic in the routine of his life.

Sophia Barrett shows you right away that Edie harbors sadness. She doesn’t exactly frown, but she carries an expression of being preoccupied with something unrelentingly disturbing.

Barrett’s Edie is visibly in mourning, but she can rouse herself to affect the normality that comes to Bloom’s Michael naturally.

Edie can be terse and occasionally cross, but she is primarily businesslike, going through her work at the bookstore with brisk efficiency and an aura of unstinting competence. Edie is obviously intelligent and, on the surface, in control of her behavior and outward emotions.

It is when Edie is alone that we see how crushing her malaise is. Barrett maintains Edie’s front while she toils next to Michael sorting, stacking, and doing inventory. (Ijames stages a nice bit where he has Michael and Edie showing their routine and their symbiosis by handling and processing books in synchronized rhythm. The best part is you notice it and admire Bloom and Barrett’s timing, but the gambit doesn’t impinge on concentrating on the basic action Bonds plots.)

That front disappears the minute she turns the key and enter her apartment. Her face immediately communicates misery. Her shoulder sag. The coat, scarf, and earmuffs she puts on so purposefully while preparing to get to work in the morning are cast aside languidly, as if all the spirit is drained from her. All Edie wants to do is report her ranking of the day to Ben, listen to him tell the story of their lives as if he was writing a rather good novel about it, and go on to her own voracious, eclectic reading.

Barrett is also adept at portraying Edie’s battle with herself. She knows she is depressed and that she has to fight it so she can be able to accept dates to the movies, even sad Czech films from the Soviet era, and have the normal life she sees Michael leading.

Edie pleads with herself to snap out of her torpor, and Barrett physicalizes her inner struggle well. Irony, in the timing of Michael’s maturing dilemma, may stymie Edie’s advances and success at getting past her sadness about Ben’s death. The last you see Edie, Barrett has given her a newly hopeful expression and adds spring to her walk. Then she meets Michael in the throes of his initial grief. Barrett’s expression changes. One cannot tell if it is from empathy or a backslide to the dark moods she wants so much to fade. The moment is a fine piece of acting, and the establishment of a  thought-provoking conundrum by Bonds and Ijames.

10991315_10152796956201478_5644963314353880541_nSarah Ochocki has “Michael & Edie’s” most difficult role. Though Sarah, seen first arranging a pillow and blanket in a designer tub in contrast to Michael cuddling in a narrow bed represented by a crumpled pillow and a ladder, is obviously on a downward spiral when we meet her, Ochocki gives her a semblance of rationality and self-understanding.

Articulate in speaking about her problem, accurate as a journalist in telling Michael about all that goes on at home in a witty, sardonic way, and seeming as much childishly dramatic as severely troubled, you think Sarah’s intellect may pull her in a more positive direction.

Ain’t happening, and while Sarah maintains a gift of gab, with Michael and later with a mysteriously appearing Ben, you know instinctively her story will not end well.

Ochocki’s genius, and possibly Ijames’s, is holding out that glimmer that Sarah might be able to rally her cogent thoughts to be like Edie and will herself out of despondency.

Sarah’s pathology is, alas, too clinical and too advanced, and is to Ochocki’s credit that we, like Michael, enjoy her company and might miss her despite the deep, deep depression she would have to confront and conquer. One can see how Sarah can become a cloying character, or one resented because of how she affects Michael and his bid for independence from family dysfunction. Neither Ochocki or Ijames lets that happen, and the Villanova reading of “Michael & Edie” is richer for it.

Kyle Fennie bursts with congeniality and compassion as Ben, a figure of importance to both Edie and Sarah who provides succor to both in spite of Ben being dead for several years when “Michael & Edie” begins.

Fennie’s warmth combines with Ochocki’s likability to make the hardest to accept segment of Bonds’s script palatable and enchanting. Ben’s scenes with Edie are totally logical within the context of Edie’s situation. She is in unceasing mourning for a brother that was killed for no good reason by a random predator. Ben entering Sarah’s bathroom retreat, at the same time abandoning Edie’s apartment, requires a leap of faith, a suspension of disbelief we gladly grant Fennie, Ochocki, Ijames, and Bonds because Ijames’s production manages it so well, so sweetly and movingly.

Fennie’s Ben is the sturdy, reliable guy any woman, or man, would love to be able to lean on. His Ben recites their life to his sister in stunningly vivid, evocative prose that makes their existence almost a fairy tale, with a benevolent godfather and all. His nursing of Sarah is remarkably soothing and makes all that occurs more gentle as it makes it more significant and distressing. You see the pattern, how Bonds and Ijames juxtapose wistfulness and pain. Fennie’s performance, in its openness and big-heartedness, makes this possible.

John Baxter, a fixture in several Villanova productions, also gets more of a chance to show his acting mettle.

His bookstore owner is “Michael & Edie’s” comic relief, and Baxter handles his assignment with aplomb, being cranky and grousing towards the title characters in the beginning and later, with a smile offering them coffee and a week or more in the shop without his order-barking presence.

Baxter finds the right tone to make John’s presence felt while not intruding on the essential interaction between Michael and Edie. His John is realistically sharp in scolding both characters for being chronically late and in assigning work duties for the day. It is when John suddenly becomes joyful, almost frothy, that Baxter’s ability as a comedian comes forward. His John is almost manic is his happiness, which may not be happiness but relief at getting away from some trouble that is suggested. The change in John’s demeanor is entertaining. Baxter’s zeal in portraying the exuberant John provides the silliness we need to break some concentration from Michael and Edie and is deftly accomplished.

Meghan Jones’s set is versatile, different elements of it serving several purposes, e.g. Michael making a bed from the bookstore ladder and boxes of books transforming quickly into two car seats. The stacks of books on stage and in the Vasey lobby were an extra source of interest for three bibliophiles, I among them, who examined every title and shared horror stories about we each acquired more than 6,000 books and how we sculpture them around our various homes. (I might make a bid on two volumes on culture and capitalism by Fernand Braudel I saw in the lobby. That is, if they’re donated, as the program states, by The Title Page in Rosemont and not the property of a Villanova professor whose bookshelf was raided for the good of the production.)

Jennifer Lanyon’s costumes were right for the characters, a plaid flannel shirt over jeans for Michael and Ben, well-worn pajamas for Sarah, and various outfits in pink tones for Edie. I was particularly amused by Edie’s Ozma-style patchwork coat and was  strikingly appalled by the first top she wears, an Urban Outfitters-like horror of a jumper that clashes with her plaid skirt and has an ugly, tasteless pattern. (To me. Urban Outfitters is the ruination of American taste. The only two words I like less in the English language are “slim fit.”)

John Stovicek’s sound design has a lot of subtle nuances and some outright symbols of urbanity, such as a subway going by. His music was evocative, especially at the beginning of the play. Jerrold R. Forsyth’s lighting helped Ijames establish the mood that makes “Michael & Edie” flow so well.

“Michael & Edie” runs through Sunday, February 22, at Vasey Hall at Villanova University, on the campus near Lancaster Pike and Ithan Avenue, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $21 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or by visiting www.villanovatheatre.org.

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