Portraits : The Last Leaf / Still Life

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday November 9, 2008

The Last Leaf / Still Life runs through November 23 at The Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown
The Last Leaf / Still Life runs through November 23 at The Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown  (Source:Blue Spruce Theatre)

Director Jesse Strachman pairs Peter Ekstrom's The Last Leaf (based on the O. Henry short story) with Jenny Giering and David Javerbaum's Still Life, making for a charming evening of theater.

Strachman's approach to the two one-act plays is to assume that they both take place in the same Greenwich Village apartment, though one hundred years apart. This is an inspired choice: the contrast allows for an appreciation of two modes of storytelling, the meticulous plotting and twist ending of the O. Henry tale standing out against the modern, character-driven Giering and Javerbaum opus.

The latter blows the dust off the former, while the former reminds us of the virtues of a vintage, and quite American, stripe of story.

The Last Leaf is set in 1905, and follows two poor artists as they set up a home and studio space together. Sue (Lisa Korak) is a sculptor; a strong and sensible woman, Sue soon takes jher new roommate, Johnsy (Rachel Baum) under her wing.

Johnsy is a painter, and young enough for Sue to regard her as something of a little sister. Johnsy is also a bit more susceptibel to the "artistic" temperament, which often, in works from this period, seems to mean a morbid turn of mind. These being the days before Prozac or penicillin, it takes only a case of pneumonia to push Johnsy's tendencies toward the bleak into a downright celebration of her impending death.

The two women have a friend in a German neighbor, Mr. Behrman (Dorothy Ahle), once a great painter who has lost his gift. (In a boozily hiccoughing rendition of a song, Behrman protests that he doesn't know why he can no longer paint.)

Johnsy stares out the window at a vine losing its leaves to winter, Mr. Behrman insists that he has one last masterpiece still in him, The Doctor (Peyton Pugmire) takes pity on the starving artists and accepts Sue's sketches as payment, and though the bittersweet ending is obvious from miles off, the cast make it entertaining--especially Ahle's Mr. Behrman, the sort of cheery, gregarious sort who may be doomed, but who faces the future with a big, challenging grin and fearless panache.

The acting is not always top-notch, but the singing is fine, especially Baum's; Ahle has the most stage presence, but she's required to sing registers that are a little too low for her; striking a balance and turning in excellent work on both singing and acting fronts is Korak, whose verve is catching and whose heartbreak at Johnsy's decline is affecting.

The set design, by Dahlia Al-Habieli is masterfully economical. Al-Habieli did striking work for the sets of The Seagull and Hay Fever last summer; her set for Faith Healer, now playing at the Boston Center for the Arts, is a minimalist triumph. Here, she showcases her talents again with a few sticks of furniture, some plywood made to look like exposed brick--and, most striking, both beautiful visually and dramatically necessary to the story, pinpoint lights illuminate a spray of green leaves on the vine outside the imaginary window (kudos also to lighting designer PJ Strachman).

But the true high note of the entire production is the on-stage ensemble: bass, harp, piano, and woodwinds, providing live accompaniment to the songs, under the music direction of Nathan Lofton and orchestrator Jose Delgado.

The same actors, the same ensemble, and the same (somewhat re-dressed) set serve once again for Still Life, a short one-act about three generations of women facing different journeys.

Helen, or "Gram" (Ahle), is slipping into senescence; once a fine painter, she can now barely carry on a conversation. Life in an assisted care facility looms for her, a transition she accepts with calm and good grace.

Sarah (Korak) is Helen's daughter-in-law, the wife of Helen's late son. Sarah has no artistic inclinations, but she's all about family, looking after her mother-in-law and smoothing her daughter's always-ruffled feathers, even as she prepares to let the young woman go off and start her own life.

Honey (Baum) is the Yale-bound daughter, a gifted photographer who has yet to find her balance as a woman or as an artist. She reverts to harsh self-criticism, and obsessively compiles to-do lists: hers will be a driven life, sure to be marked by accomplishment but challenged by an inability to let herself go and simply enjoy.

The play lacks the neatly tucked narrative packaging of O. Henry's style, but that's because it enjoys a fluency of another sort: playfully, one song shows the women gathered for a series of breakfasts as their last few days together fly by, with Honey always in a rush and Gram becoming more and more mentally infirm.

There are no huge dramatics or life and death scenarios to Still Life; rather, it's a touching little portrait, a still life in its own right with an inbuilt dynamism that feels more emotionally true than the syrupy O. Henry play that preceded it, but which benefits from the earlier play by remaining anchored, rather than drifting off in a light and fluffy cloud, thanks to the tone of artistic gravitas established at the outset.

Blue Spruce Theatre’s production of Portraits: The Last Leaf/Still Life runs through November 23 at the Arsenal Center for the Performing Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.

Tickets cost $18-$30, plus box office fees. Tickets available online at www.arsenalarts.org or via phone from the new Repertory Theatre box office at 617-923-8487.

Performance schedule: Thursdays at 8:00 p.m.; Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

The 7:30 p.m. performances on 11/14, 11/15, 11/21 and 11/22 will be followed by additional cabaret entertainment provided by Rebekah and Sarah Turner.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.