The much-anticipated San Diego directing debut of well-known actress and director Judith Ivey in the west coast premiere of Christian O'Reilly's Irish-themed comedic drama Chapatti at North Coast Rep did not disappoint. One of the most versatile players of stage, film and TV, two-time Tony winner Ivey is perhaps most popular for her role in the well-liked TV series Designing Women but her compelling presence has been admired in just about every dramatic arena. Among the countless luminaries with whom she has worked, she counts Oscar award winning Dame Helen Mirren, who recently played Queen Elizabeth II to Ivey's Margaret Thatcher in The Audience on Broadway.
In our interview for Broadway World (/san-diego/article/BWW-Interview-Judith-Ivey-Directs-Irish-Love-Tale-at-North-Coast-Rep-20151012) Ivey spoke about how touched she was by O'Reilly's love story and how attracted she was to "the humor of it in the midst of some very dramatic serious moments that are aspects of being that age." Indeed, last night's west coast premiere of the young Irish playwright's touching two-character play about second chances in life showed Ivey well capable of plumbing the emotional depths of the characters' psyches and giving the actors full opportunity to open their hearts and minds to each other. Ivey, having professed her love for her fellow thespians, clearly is an actors' director and enjoys the process of guiding their dramatic journeys.
A love story about "people of a certain age" would seem to be an idea whose time has come, with Baby Boomers reaching that "golden threshold" at a rapid pace. In Chapatti, which had its world premiere last year at Chicago's Northlight Theatre and then played at the Galway Arts Festival, O'Reilly appealingly punctuates the two characters' dialogue with introspective moments as they speak candidly to the audience with touching insights that reveal their most inner likes, wants and needs. His prose jumps off the page and right into the hearts of the audience as he reveals the Irish part of his own soul with devastatingly real poetic language. He displays a canny cognizance of the nature of drama to his Irish compatriots; i.e., what appears on a stage is almost like a sacred rite that should not be interrupted in any way.
At these characters' ages, physical beauty no longer is part of the equation in mutual attraction; a person's "true" self emerges through the trials and tribulations of being an older person. The two actors, Annabella Price (Betty) and Mark Bramhall (Dan), admirably displayed their impressive professional backgrounds in their tender, poignant performances of O'Reilly's work, which runs the gamut of emotions: sad, funny, happy, melancholy but never overly so. Together the duo immediately drew in the audience, setting an authentically Irish atmosphere with charming accents and genuinely heartfelt Irish warmth.
Price, a veteran of such celebrated venues as the Mark Taper Forum, Old Globe and Sundance Playwright Conference, and a number of TV and film roles, brought an affecting candor to the role of Betty. Her honesty and gentleness poured right through her portrayal of a long-sheltered woman whose world is largely limited to her immediate surroundings. Price was absolutely radiant in this role, making the most of the ironic twists in her character's dramatic journey, and winning over the hearts of the audience with her portrayal - thoroughly endearing yet at times revealing the fiery passion bubbling beneath her winsomeness.
As widower Dan, Mark Bramhall's likeably cranky portrayal provided a perfect foil to Price's gentle soul. Also experienced from appearances the Mark Taper and with L.A.'s Antaeus Theatre Company, the Ovation and L.A. Drama Critics Circle, the award-winning actor has performed off-Broadway and at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, among numerous others. Unafraid to show his vulnerability, he captured the essence of Dan with earnestness and wry intensity: while his character is not always likeable, Bramhall keeps him relatable.
The creative team behind the scenes came through with characteristic dependability, starting with Marty Burnett's engaging unit set, and the sentimental glow of Matthew Novotny's lighting. Elisa Benzoni's costumes worked effectively with these and with Melanie Chen's sound design, Andrea Gutierrez's props and Jessica Amador's scenic artistry.
In this young, promising playwright's drama about two older people who refuse to settle into that niche, the interplay between the two characters, the joys and painful moments of a newly discovered late-in-life love, are portrayed with great sensitivity. Questions are answered. Why does Dan name his dog after an East Indian bread meaning "to slap" in Hindi? How does cat lover Betty reconcile interacting with a male companion who is a devotee of dogs? What is truly at the heart of these two lonely people's stories coming to a mutual juncture in their lives?
In the end, what matters most is that one can become older and yet remain capable of an enduring faith in love. The triple team of Ivey, Price and Bramhall did right by that premise.