The Port City Playhouse brings to an end its 32nd season, its 8th at the Nannie J. Lee Center, with a first play by a successful British novelist, Kate Atkinson. "Abandonment" is a play that feels like a trimmed down novel — one where some of the better ideas have been cut for purposes of time. Even so, the production lasts nearly a full three hours.
While the material might catch an audience’s imagination and hold its attention over such a time span if a production could build a sense of intimacy, it has an uphill battle when presented in a sparsely occupied, nearly cavernous space, which has been the misfortune of the Port City troupe all too often in the 400-seat Richard Kauffman Auditorium at the Lee Center. With all those seats and an overly large stage, establishing any sort of connection between play and audience is difficult. With audiences numbering in the tens instead of the hundreds, it is a loosing battle.
Perhaps it is time for this theatre company to consider finding a new space. Before moving to the Lee Center during the 2002-2003 season, the company performed in a tiny lecture hall in the old building of the T.C. Williams Career Center. As the company says, the "small sets and small casts" required at T.C. Williams helped it "to redefine its vision as a theater devoted to staging non-musicals with themes generally more ‘cutting edge.’" It is still doing the kind of shows that work best in smaller venues but it is proving difficult to attract larger audiences to even approach the capacity of the Kauffman.
"Abandonment" is the story of a woman (Melissa Hurt) recovering from divorce who seeks a fresh start by moving into a restored Victorian flat only to find that connections with friends and family move with her. There is her adoptive mother (Bonnie Jourdan) whose own marriage was none too successful and who resents any talk of her wanting to find her birth mother in order to understand why she was abandoned as an infant. There is also her sister (Alana D. Sharp) who apparently has always resented the special relationship of an adopted sibling. Adding to the pressure is a best friend with her own issues (Cathy Miller).
The Victorian flat brings with it a number of problems both physical and personal. The floors are afflicted with dry rot and the workman hired to repair them (P. Spencer Tamney) becomes a fixture in her life. The problems of the present aren’t the only ones in this flat, however. The spirits of the former occupants hover about and have their own stories. Most of the cast members double in the roles of the Victorian specters, including Kim Curtis who contributes a strong presence whether performing as the 21st Century woman’s new lover or a member of the 19th Century family.
The performance that stands out, however, is that of Bonnie Jourdan, a regular on Alexandria stages known for her ability to portray motherly or even grandmotherly roles with a delightful touch. Again, in the early portions of her performance as the woman’s adoptive mother, she emphasizes the lighter side of her character’s makeup while showing just a bit of what might lie underneath. Her performance at this point is just a bit reminiscent of Betty White in "The Golden Girls," but Jourdan is setting the audience up for her big moment. In the second act, things come unglued for her character and she explodes with the force of a gale culminating in an expletive that gives her a classic exit line.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.