A Trio of Classics

Local offerings range from camp to damp.

Misbegotten's Derdriu Ring and Sean Haberle - are a little too luminous for O'Neill's poetry.
Misbegotten's Derdriu Ring and Sean Haberle are a little too luminous for O'Neill's poetry.
There are many aspects to the word "classic," and here are three works to prove it. The first, an example of classic kitsch, is Aida, now energizing Playhouse Square with the flashy verve of a disco diva. This musical is remotely based on the plot of the Verdi opera, but it has been totally transformed to resemble the dramatized id of a Valley Girl. Its greatest assets are Bob Crowley's set and costumes, vibrant swaths of blazing fabric that give the illusion of legitimacy to Elton John/Tim Rice's shamefully shallow score.

Director Robert Falls and choreographer Wayne Cilento move the action along with muscular drive and loony conviction. Dizzying in its jubilant speed, the show exults in its exhilarating nonsense. One of the advantages of a first-rate tour is the undisputed quality of the performances. As the Egyptian princess Amneris, Kelli Fournier excels at pouting, presenting an inspired bubble-headed showgirl routine. One of the show's high points is her court fashion show. Patrick Cassidy plays beefcake Egyptian stud Radames, whose picturesque torso is essential to the show's sexual heat. Son of musical theater royalty Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, he does his lineage proud. With regal cheekbones that play to the last row and a zest for outraged dignity, Paulette Ivory makes an ideal Nubian princess and leading lady.

So as not to upset the kiddies, the lovers Radames and Aida outdo their Verdi counterparts by reuniting 2,000 years later at an Egyptian art exhibit. It all exists on a different planet from Verdi, and only a snob would compare the two. This incarnation of Aida is a classic hoot.

The Great Lakes Theater Festival made its reputation as a haven for classics, but in the last decade had sadly lost its bearings. It became the equivalent of a theatrical Flying Dutchman, rudderless and drifting into a foggy, uncharted ocean of incessant Scrooges, modernized Peter Pans, and undernourished musicals.

With A Moon for the Misbegotten, the theater happily harks back to familiar territory, delivering a bona fide classic. Artistic director James Bundy's directorial farewell not only summons forth Eugene O'Neill's ghostly lovers, but also the theater's own past. Once again reclaiming the stage is former artistic director Vincent Dowling, playing another variation on the high-energy Irish extrovert he once specialized in. Here, as a rogue father, he's a potent combination of bawdy and melancholy. The petite, porcelain-like Derdriu Ring is miscast as O'Neill's giant, rough-hewn earth mother. She wistfully captures the role's sweetness but none of its vital coarseness. Similarly, Sean Haberle is too young and glowing to embody the desolate poetry of the playwright's doomed alter ego. As a couple, these two have an airbrushed sheen: There is nothing of O'Neill's maimed souls, thus the painful grandeur is reduced to a poignant love story.

Yet the final statement of this country's most powerful playwright is a work of overwhelming tenderness, imbued with a verbal music as idiosyncratically American and vibrant as a Sousa march.

Bundy's lyrical direction, with its painterly images, brings to mind the work of his illustrious predecessor, Gerald Freedman. That, combined with the delicate beauty of veteran Great Lakes set designer John Ezell's almost mystical pink and gray landscape, and lighting designer Matthew Frey's russet sunrises, allows enough of the play's magic to endure. It all works as safe harbor for a happy return of this once indispensable theater company.

Ensconced at the Cleveland Play House is Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery. This what-to-do-with-grandma play is so well-intended that it leaves audiences feeling guilty for wanting to smother it to put it out of its misery.

Best known for writing and directing the splendid film You Can Count on Me, the playwright has a knack for delineating the inner life of his characters. As the evening's decaying granny, Ann Guilbert brings a vaudevillian panache to a role that tries to milk comic mileage out of the humiliation of senility.

Guilbert delivers an unforgettable performance, simultaneously showing flashes of her character Gladys's former abundant charm while vividly enacting her encroaching mental deterioration. She is ably supported by a sensitive, well-nuanced cast. Andrew Katz, Darrie Lawrence, and Mike Hartman are supremely likable, yet proficient at demonstrating the aggravating quirks that run in a family. Don Bowman wrestles with an unnecessary role that slows things down.

The play itself is an impossible proposition: a memory play about the loss of memory. Lonergan so convincingly depicts Gladys's mental deterioration that the audience soon feels as trapped and exasperated as her relatives do. Adding to the problems is Peter Hackett's lugubrious direction: He maintains a one-note, situation-comedy hysteria without allowing for variation and subtlety. Felix E. Cochren's expressionistic set, whirling like a Rube Goldberg contraption, calls attention to itself. Like the work it's supposed to illuminate, it's a classic misfire that sabotages a worthy cast.

Watching the enchanting Guilbert wage victorious battle against an agonizing script is akin to watching one's beloved grandma slay the big bad wolf.