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'Angel's Share' an Eloquent Story of Friends, Mortality

March 28, 1997|PHILIP BRANDES

There never seems to be a shortage of terminal illness stories, perhaps because so many of us end up dying. But while shopworn specimens of the genre are a dime a dozen, it's rare to encounter as stirring and provocative a treatment as Casey DeFranco's "Angel's Share" at the Tiffany Theater.

Startlingly crisp writing, finely drawn characters and powerhouse performances electrify this story of two lifelong friends, Loretta (Salome Jens) and Dixie (Paula Pren9tiss), coming to terms with the final phase of Dixie's battle with cancer.

There aren't many plot surprises along the way, but DeFranco keeps schmaltz at bay with quirky, pretension-deflating humor--upon receiving "On Death and Dying" as a gift, Dixie chirps, "Look, Loretta--instructions!" Even when the tone borders on the macabre, as with Loretta's insistence on having a birthday party for her comatose friend, the comedy works because it never violates the emotional context for the sake of a laugh--it's clear that Loretta's obsession with their birthday tradition is rooted in denial.

She pays dearly for it, and in a shattering performance Jens cycles through even the borderline melodrama in Loretta's grief with absolute conviction, giving authentic weight to the choice she faces in the end: whether to turn completely inward or reengage the living. A well-matched opposite who refuses to exit in a cliche, Prentiss' fragile but feisty Dixie evokes the kind of dignified self-awareness we'd all like to think we could muster in her shoes.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 29, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Identification--In a photo caption accompanying a review of "Angel's Share" in Friday's Calendar, the names of Paula Prentiss and Salome Jens were reversed.

In supporting performances, Joan Sweeny is hilariously on point as Loretta's self-absorbed daughter, Ellen Gerstein makes lively fun as a cantankerous housekeeper, and despite some overwritten petulance, Erinn Strain hits an endearing mix of kookiness and vulnerability as Loretta's unwed, pregnant, new age granddaughter. Director Susan Peretz steers her fine cast with admirable emotional clarity through an eloquent depiction of mortality issues that have become increasingly urgent to a graying population.

* "Angel's Share," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends May 18. $22-$25. (213) 462-4122. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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