SAN DIEGO — At least three major puzzles await audiences of "The Last Good Moment of Lilly Baker," playing at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre's original theater through Dec. 19. The first puzzle lies in the title itself--just what is the last good moment of Lilly Baker and why does that cut it as the name of the play? No answers here. The last is the ending--as in, come on guys, where is it? The play doesn't so much conclude as peter out.
The middle, and biggest one though, is why it has taken so long for New York playwright Russell Davis to make his West Coast debut. Though the show has its faults--and they are not really as numerous as the above questions suggest--there is a richness of characterization and scope here that tease, please and surprise, and with a mythic stretch that is, at its best, reminiscent of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
One of the elements that made "Virginia Woolf" so exciting to audiences back in 1962 was not the then-shocking language (nowhere in evidence here), but the way it showed the American dream at war with itself through the fights of George, a history professor, and his wife, Martha, who just happen to share the names of the mother and father of our country.
Like "Virginia Woolf," the play revolves around two couples getting together for a weekend. But almost in an inversion of Albee's equation, Davis makes the main couple in his play not the bitterly fighting couple but the mild-mannered, good old ordinary working class Lilly and Bob Baker.
Then, too, these are not couples meeting for the first time, but friends who honeymooned together 15 years ago in the very country inn where they are having their reunion. Back then, they were self-consciously equal to the point of playing a marathon Monopoly game in which no one was allowed to get ahead. Now, while honest, steadfast Bob, working for the same company, has stayed pretty much where he was, his friend, unscrupulous Sam, has wheeled and dealed his way to the top of the corporate ladder.
The dark side of these changes is reflected in the mysterious, growing sadness of Lilly, the woman that both men loved and Bob won. Lilly, like a subtle representation of the land itself, hallucinates about buffalo roaming through her world, making her stop her car in the middle of the road. It is as if she feels guilty about all that America has taken, and in a fearful wish-fulfillment fantasy is letting the buffalo take more and more of it back--at her own expense.
One can hardly ask for a better production than the one provided here by the Gaslamp. Under Jean Hauser's crisp and sensitive direction, this one-room play pulses with movement, and the dialogue, which on the surface seems deceptively ordinary, sparkles.
As Lilly and Bob, Gail West and Bill Maass achieve the delicate give-and-take of a long-married couple who have recently found themselves at sea with each other.
Their relationship makes the title of the play doubly curious because though West could hardly be more appealing as the sometimes ironic and at other times lost and touching Lilly, it is the quiet power of Maass' performance that makes him the Everyman at the heart of the play.
Ron Richards is arresting as Sam. In less skillful hands, this part could be played as the classic looking-out-for-No. 1 villain. But Richards succeeds in finding depth in his character, demonstrating sometimes with just a look the cost of who he has become--and why he would do it again.
The weakest link in the team is Cheryl Harvey as Molly. The part is the least well-developed of the four, so some floundering is understandable.
Still, Harvey does come across as a bit young for the hardened-sophisticate role, seeming a little shaky under the bravado. Some of her missing self-assurance is compensated for by Dianne Holly's well-chosen costumes, which aptly capture the distinctions between the truly fashionable couple and the plain folk who are just trying to be well-dressed.
Robert Earl's bedroom design gets the cozy quilted and crocheted appointments of a fine country inn down pat. Matthew Cubitto's lighting well marks the passing time. John Hauser's crickets and waterfall sounds, while nice, come up too abruptly. The rich, murky score that plays between the scenes is a welcome addition by Lawrence Czoka. Czoka's composition, which was written for this play, enhances the ambiance by drawing out the emotional lights and shadows.
An excellent production such as this one is a double-edged sword, not only showing the work off at its best, but also revealing the holes in it. Ultimately "The Last Good Moment of Lilly Baker" plays like a plea to the playwright: Tell us how it really ends, Mr. Davis. And give us some more plays.
"THE LAST GOOD MOMENT OF LILLY BAKER"
By Russell Davis. Director is Jean Hauser. Original music by Larry Czoka. Set by Robert Earl. Costumes by Dianne Holly. Lighting by Matthew Cubitto. Sound by John Hauser. Stage manager is Lisa D. Baker. With Cheryl Harvey, Bill Maass, Ron Richards and Gail West. At 8 p.m. Wednesday--Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2. At the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, 444 4th Ave., San Diego.