Those were the good old days

Carol Triffle's human comedy "The Reunion" at Imago plays with nostalgia and longing and the surprise of life as it hits us in the face

Walking into Imago Theatre on Saturday night to see Carol Triffle’s new play The Reunion was like walking into a hippie pad circa 1969 (yes, I speak from direct experience) on a particularly groovy day. One psychedelically bubbly wall was sporting more peace symbols than a VW camper at the Oregon Country Fair. Donovan was warbling Season of the Witch over the speaker, reminding me in flashback of how snotty the future Nobel Laureate of the Lowlands had been to a singer I liked. No strings of beads were dangling in the doorways, but the stage was aglitter in crepe and saturated color and overdone cheerfulness, as if Triffle had raided The Lippman Company party-supply store with a hundred bucks and an SUV to load the booty into and haul it all off. In other words: perfect.

Party hearty: Sean Bowie, Danielle Vermette, Jerry Mouawad. Photo: Kevin Young

Over the years Triffle’s developed a brittle absurdist comic style that seems deeply rooted in the traditions of mime and clown and slapstick comedy, and at its best can make you laugh out loud while it’s quietly breaking your heart. The Reunion, which runs about a well-paced hour and packs the concise wallop of a good novella, does both – or at least, it did for me. On the surface a Triffle play can feel like an animated jaunt through the Sunday comics, a cartoon landscape inhabited by characters with the oddball normality of the townsfolk in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. And so it is in The Reunion, where the oddball and laughable and sometimes more than slightly looney settle slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a deep and moving contemplation of the human condition. It’s the sort of thing that good clowns do, this bonding of the foolish and profound, and it makes them essential to the culture.

WELCOME GRAND PRAIRIE HIGH SCHOOL ALUMNI, a fancifully lettered sign on the wall reads, and so we know where we are, even if we’re not sure where Grand Prairie is. It’s high school reunion time, it’s been a few years, and we’re going to run into a few people who left and rarely come back, and a few people who never left and have come to haunt the town that also haunts them, and a few people who are utter strangers tagging along with their mates. It’s a place where teenage stirrings intrude on middle-aged bodies for the night, and where what-ifs and how-are-you’s and who-are-you’s and geez-you’ve-aged’s lie mostly unspoken behind the name tags. A band’s playing onstage, and curiously, it seems to be made up of guys who were in this graduating class, too.

Kyle Delamarter and Megan Skye Hale: the benefits of friendship. Photo: Kevin Young

Into this atmosphere of frayed and intermittently desperate nostalgia walk Dolores (Danielle Vermette) and her husband, John (Jerry Mouawad), who falls very much into the tagging-along category. Mouawad, who founded Imago many years ago with Triffle, paces in like the Groucho Marx of the corn country, hair slicked back and plaid jacket shouting like he’s a farm-implement salesman headed for disco night at the Ramada Inn, talking a blue streak in an excitable high-pitched drawling whinge. Dolores shuffles in more tentatively in his wake. She’s excited and anticipatory and nervous, torn between being here and being anyplace else on Earth, so help her God. Was this the right dress? Will anyone remember her? Will her old flame be here? Vermette plays Dolores with shy sweetness and just a touch of waspishness and an occasional “Shut up!”: unspoken stuff lingers between these two.

Floyd (Sean Bowie) is a meeter and a greeter and a blustery insinuator and a bit of an incorrigible flirt, and he also plays in the band, which is led by Duke (Kyle Delamarter) who slips and slides and oozes like a Walmart knockoff of David Bowie falling to Earth, and who has a longtime case of the unrequited hots for Brittany (Imago regular Megan Skye Hale), who is That Girl – cheerleader, organizer, fox in a tight red dress, possibly successful and possibly desperate-for-business lawyer, elusive lover of the bottle and whichever boy she’s near, and who is also beginning to feel the quiet desperation of the fading flesh. Tek (Jon Farley) is the drummer, the sort of guy who might be in the house band in the back lounge of a second-rate casino in Sparks, and he never says a word, although he does get to kiss Dolores, once, as she’s passing around smooches willy nilly. And Bryan Smith sweeps in mysteriously now and again as the Custodian.

Each of these characters begins as a caricature, a sort of easy cultural template that an audience can laugh at as a humorous cultural lowlife, and I think it’s just that sort of lowering of expectations that also allows Triffle to lower the emotional boom and take the audience on an unexpected ride. John and Floyd and Duke and Brittany undergo subtle transitions as the reality of life settles in on them, and these skilled actors (Triffle also directs) make those changes both surprising and generously believable. But Dolores is the fulcrum point of The Reunion, the heart and soul of the thing, the one with the Big Reveal, and Vermette subtly and vulnerably carries off this teetering balance of the ridiculous and the sensitively sublime, often in the same moment: As she delivers Dolores’s big speech to the gathering (which John has written for her, but he knows what she wants, and needs, to say) her shy mumble-mumble-mumble through the painful parts speaks with simple eloquence even when we can’t make out a word of it.

Vermette, Bowie, Hale: But do you remember me, really? Photo: Kevin Young

Somehow, with the barest of budgets and a sharply imaginative script that drops in and out of reality with the fleeting logic of a dream, Triffle’s introduced us to a group of people we want to laugh at, and prodded us to want to throw our arms around them, too. She gently pries up the trap door of humanity and opens it to a miracle of grace. We are all fools, we are all mortal, we are all in this thing together, we make what families and communities come to us, we all have hearts that we can use or abuse until our heartbeats stop and we surrender to the void. In the end, and maybe even after, we have one another, and that’s the awful and embracing divineness of the human comedy. ‘Til the next reunion, this one will do.

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The premiere production of Carol Triffle’s The Reunion has a short run, continuing at Imago Theatre through June 24. Ticket and schedule information here.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I was there Friday night and I loved it, for all the reasons you read above, and also the way these actors use their bodies, fantastic.

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