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A Spam Souffl 

Local theater star Dorothy Silver easily outshines her subject matter.

A favorite parlor game at plush gatherings is for old geezers, with brandy snifters in hand, to torture the under-forty guests with reminiscences of theatrical legends they encountered in their theatergoing youth. The youngsters can only hang their heads in shame as they hear tales of faded glory, reaching from the Lunts to Katharine Cornell.

For those desperate to acquire their own share of luminous memories to someday pass down, Dorothy Silver, a local legend in the leagues of Helen Hayes and Gertrude Berg, is doling out generous amounts of her patented radiance at Ensemble Theatre's production of Clara's Play by John Olive.

It would be more appropriate to call it Clara's Frame, since this is basically a jury-rigged contraption for an older actress (originally Jean Stapleton) to boldly plummet from indomitable tenacity to lunacy and fragility. At best, it is a tidy acting exercise for a grand dame too old for Blanche Dubois and who has essayed Amanda Wingfield one time too many.

Anyone who has seen Driving Miss Daisy, Lilies of the Field, or Trip to Bountiful knows the routine: The feisty old woman crosses wits with a young stranger from another race or culture. Inevitably they ennoble each other; one leaves for a better life, and the other ends up in the old folks' home or in the arms of Jesus.

As expected, Silver makes a souffle out of Spam. Presently in her Lillian Gish, beatific old lady phase, she seems to carry around a permanently charged halo. She has come to the point in her career where the tiniest gesture--a hand to her careworn throat, a crooked grin, a girlish pat to a forlorn ribbon in her iron-gray curls--can evoke decades of hard-won experience. Just to be in her presence is like receiving grace from a Madonna. Her acting range is remarkable, from a completely believable Irish colleen to a European countess out for blood. She is, indeed, the ideal tour guide through the female half of the human experience.

Tim Saukiavicus, as the Norwegian handyman, manages to hold his own, flashing greed, compassion, and a titanic life force with the high voltage of a traffic light. It's lucky for him that he is sturdy as a plow horse, or he would be blown off the stage by his theatrical hurricane of a co-star.

Director Reuben Silver, a legend in his own right and dutiful husband to Dorothy, is the ideal Petrucchio to keep this ever-bonny Kate in check.

--Joseph

Clara's Play. Through April 18 at Ensemble Theatre, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

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