From the moment long-time widow Amanda (Penny Fuller) and more recent widower Gus (Larry Keith) meet in the opening scene of Kathleen Clark’s
Southern Comforts at Primary Stages, you know exactly what’s going to happen. The only thing you don’t know is just how you’re going to get to that place you’re going.
Fortunately, this tale of late-blooming love tiptoes through a minefield of clichés and avoids them with a combination of lovingly detailed writing by Clark, elegant staging by director Judith Ivey, and wonderfully lived-in performances by Fuller and Keith. Written with humor and a certain amount of honest sentimentality, Southern Comforts is a satisfying and oftentimes funny story about the compromises — and the richness — that can come about when two people decide to be a couple.
As the play opens, we see Gus moving storm windows in his sparsely furnished New Jersey home (well designed by Thomas Lynch); moments later, Amanda comes to his door on an errand from their local church. But it turns out that Amanda, a vivacious Southern woman, is just in town visiting her daughter and grandkids. Next thing we know, a thunderstorm keeps Amanda under Gus’ roof long enough for the two of them to become acquainted.
What we see in this first scene establishes not only character but lays the groundwork for essential plot turns. But you won’t realize until the play is nearing its climax just how carefully and intricately written it is. The storm windows will play a big part in the story of their relationship. Gus’s former job as a stone mason is thrown away early but that information is also essential to the plot. So, too, is their mutual love of baseball, which is established while the literal and metaphorical storm is raging outside. That storm also allows us to learn something important about Gus; he shakes noticeably at a particularly loud crack of thunder; he admits it brings on World War II memories that haunt him. And that is something that allows Amanda to talk about her long-dead husband, who also brought the war home with him. Eventually, Gus will also open up about his late wife, Helen.
The play is constructed as an intermissionless one-act — although there is a slightly lengthy set change in the middle that functions brilliantly as a scene in itself — and each new scene picks up their growing relationship in stages. Thanks to the expert costuming by Joseph G. Aulisi and lovely lighting design by Brian Nason — not to mention the meaningful writing — it only takes a moment for the audience to realize how much time has passed and what must have transpired between scenes in the lives of Gus and Amanda. The device is both simple and sophisticated, largely because it treats the audience with respect, expecting us to follow their story without being spoon-fed the details.
The plays humor and the character are on the page, but Keith’s gruff and blunt performance with its idiosyncratic vocal rhythms is a tonic of originality. He takes what might be a stock character and turns him into a three-dimensional reality. Fuller also plays a character we’ve seen a thousand times before; the perky, giving, full-of-life woman who draws out the man who is cold and taciturn. Still, this veteran actress is genuinely charming, which helps make Amanda as appealing to us as she is to Gus. Moreover, Fuller has an underlying toughness that gives her character a grittiness that belies her Southern charm.
Some folks tend to look down their nose at formula, but a well-done formula piece like Southern Comforts is almost as rare as a hit musical. Enjoy it while it’s here.