SOLANA BEACH — Sally is a perky country girl living in Manhattan. She bakes her own pies, makes puppets out of peanuts and reads Dale Carnegie for inspiration. Her neighbor, Marsha, is a caustic, chain-smoking neurotic who yearns for greatness and sees her shrink every afternoon.
Want to bet they become the best of friends?
The odd couple premise may be rather shopworn, but some pleasant turns are provided in Sybille Pearson's "Sally & Marsha," a two-woman play at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through April 19.
One of the most pleasant among them is Lynette Winter as Sally. There is something absolutely infectious about the way she crinkles up her face and exclaims with enthusiasm that makes you want to step right up and sample one of her homemade goodies.
The two meet when Sally, hungry for company, stops Marsha in the hallway of their apartment building and offers her some pie. Marsha, hungry for pie, accepts--but only because she thinks Sally is selling it. The last thing she wants is a gift that might obligate her to have a conversation which might, in turn, open her up.
But they do have a conversation. It's just a little one, but Sally manages to coax just enough feeling out of Marsha for the friendship to begin.
The relationship has its share of misunderstandings: Sally urges her friend to pursue her dreams.
Olive Blackistone's direction shines here, as in "Blood Relations," when she is bringing out the tough and tender nuances in relationships. She has a feeling for the subtle ways people move together when their thoughts are harmonizing. This is especially in evidence in the very funny scene where Sally and Marsha vent their frustrations by shouting the names of the people who anger them while they punch a big Fred Flintstone toy. They sock it to their husbands, Sally's husband's boss (who promises her husband breaks that never come), the doorman in Marsha's analyst's building (who never fails to ask her what floor she is going to) and finally, Princess Diana.
Later, the women also express strong anger against each other. Unfortunately, this is where the delicate fabric of the play begins to unravel. It's all well and good when Sally tells Marsha she's selfish and a bad mother. We've seen the evidence and so has Marsha. It's something she can acknowledge and deal with.
But when Marsha tells Sally that she's agoraphobic and only loves others because she has a sick need to be needed, these are serious charges which neither character ever answers. All we get is a pat apology from Marsha in a later scene in which she says that Sally is wonderful and everything she said isn't true.
Throughout the play there is a feeling that the playwright doesn't understand Sally very well, even though she likes her a whole lot better than Marsha, whom she understands completely.
Susan Gelman's performance as Marsha is intelligent, but she doesn't create anywhere near the feeling for her character that Winter does for Sally. It's true that the writing stacks the deck against her, giving Sally most of the charm but Marsha most of the down, but she does have a few good jokes that some crisp New York rhythms would have made a lot more fun.
The set, by Barth Ballard, is a simple but effective evocation of Sally's bottom-of-the-line flat. It would have been nice, though, if his lighting had done a better job of hiding the actresses as they ran on and off stage between the scenes.
The sound by Lawrence Ozoka satisfies and Kathryn Gould's costumes are just right, from Sally's fuzzy blue slippers to Marsha's gloomy dark colors, lightened, under Sally's influence, in the later parts of the play.
Between the scenes, Blakistone plays selections from old favorite songs about friendship, from Bette Midler's "Friends" to Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
It all contributes to a sense of nostalgia for recent or long-gone friends who have made a difference in one's life. In the end, the ability of "Sally & Marsha" to touch the right chords may have less to do with the sum of what's being offered, than with the sum of the memories that each playgoer brings to it.
"SALLY & MARSHA" By Sybille Pearson. Directed by Olive Blakistone. Set and lighting by Barth Ballard. Sound by Lawrence Ozoka. Costumes by Kathryn Gould. Stage manager is Marcia Filion. With Lynette Winter and Susan Gelman. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Sundays at 7, with matinees April 19 and March 22 at 2. Closes April 19. At the North Coast Repertory Theatre, Solana Beach.