Theatre Review: Ember Women’s Theatre’s Charming ‘Terms of Endearment’
eMBer Women’s Theatre returns to the MadLab space with Terms of Endearment, directed with a sure hand by Michelle Batt with Vicki Andronis as assistant director.
This Terms of Endearment boasts a script by Dan Gordon, adapted from James L. Brooks’ screenplay for his 1983 film based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. It zooms in on the complicated, sometimes tumultuous, love between Aurora Greenway (Melissa Bair) and her daughter Emma (Cat McAlpine), and Aurora’s complicated love with astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Scott Douglas Wilson), Emma’s with her husband Flap Horton (Leo Santucci), and Emma’s best friend Patsy (Reagan Hyer).
This Terms of Endearment keeps the charm and lived-in empathy for its characters, even when behaving horribly, that makes the movie and novel so beloved. Its weaknesses come embedded in the DNA of that twice-removed adaptation process. The telephone stands as a device and a metaphor for connection in the 20th century throughout electronic media – from Edison’s first phonograph through the Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies of the ‘50s – and Brooks implied all that history and resonance to tremendous effect in adapting McMurtry’s novel.
The technique doesn’t work as well on a stage where the audience can see Bair and McAlpine are only feet away from one another. It feels like stalling. Batt does wonders to work around this, as does Brendan Michna’s marvelous, versatile set, but it never quite escapes a certain static-ness; these great performances fight against feeling boxed in. Batt also does everything she can to keep the momentum up but the scenes are built for the quicker transitions of the camera and they feel stop-start choppy.
Those complaints about the material aside, these characters are burned into the fabric of popular culture for a reason and it’s hard to picture better takes on these grasping, struggling, heroic people than we get here. Bair’s Aurora is a performance you can’t take your eyes off, taking the complicated matriarch fighting for every inch of her place in society and her family, and making the character new and surprising. She understands that the audience roots for Aurora despite some of her actions and shows just enough glimmers of warmth and existential loneliness to keep us hooked.
McAlpine’s Emma is a study in the vital human capacity for forgiveness; of each other, of the cards we’re dealt, and most crucially, of herself. It’s a performance that shifts from riotous to touching, using deftly deployed physical comedy and a deepening sense of dynamics to twist the knife and make even the most telegraphed plot points pop and burn.
Wilson’s take on the swaggering, irresistible Breedlove blends an unlikely gravitas with self-awareness of his own lack of center of gravity. His raucous, physical performance hints at enough damage to set up an almost balletic double-orbit with Bair and also keep the audience rapt through some sections of the material that have not aged well. Santucci’s Flap has less to do than anyone else but still treats the character as a person instead of a cartoon.
If you have any fondness for these characters, eMBer Women’s Theatre’s Terms of Endearment is a wonderful chance to spend a couple more hours in their company.
Terms of Endearment runs through September 28 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit https://emberwomens.com/current.