Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
We learn that the previous owner of Jack's house died, likely of a broken heart. And we discover that Lizzy's husband died quite recently in a construction accident. As their acquaintance deepens, Jack shares that his wife died of cancer several years earlier. His move to Lenoraville is an effort at a new start.
They're both haunted by their losses and their pasts. As Lizzy observes, "We're the leftovers." But in fits and starts, insulated by a lot of comic banter, they gradually open up to one another. Their baggage does not make that an easy path, and there's no guarantee that they'll be anything but cordial neighbors–she bakes pies for him, he helps with occasional handyman chores. Despite their differing philosophies about washing and drying, they each air their personal laundry and discover that they each have secrets and buried pain.
Lizzy jestingly tells Jack she has secrets, and he asks what they might be. "Do you know what a secret is?" she shoots back skeptically. "Oh, I bet you do. I bet you know your way around a secret. In fact, I bet you know the secret of all secrets." She rambles on, having discovered that he teaches physics. "The inner workings of a secret. There must be some law, some axiom of secrets in the scientific community–some algorithm ..." she rambles on, until he cuts her off.
Playwright Cefaly has employed several devices to allow us to look more deeply into how Lizzy and Jack's circumstances overlap. She was close with the couple whose home he now owns. He found an old rucksack in a crawl space over the back porch, filled with letters the couple exchanged, revelations of profound love but a not-always-happy marriage. As they compare notes about teaching, Jack asks Lizzy to describe a student who disappointed her, and she describes a sensitive teen whose family life was depressing his expressiveness. Cefaly's pleasantly conversational script enables these revelations to happen quite naturally.
Rader, a veteran of shows at Cincinnati Shakespeare and Know Theatre, makes her Ensemble Theatre debut with this production. She's a perfect fit for the quirky, endearing role of Lizzy, full of opinions and creativity, who more than once dances right up close to a relationship with Jack, then veers away. He assures her, "There are worse things that being odd, girl. I like oddness, I like it a lot. You need to loosen up." As they grow closer, Rader does an excellent job of playing a nervous woman who's very guarded about happiness and closeness, things she's never been able to sustain.
Gilreath, familiar to ETC audiences from an array of productions there (he also has played Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for several years), inhabits the role of Jack, an unflappable, self-contained man with an inner core of grief that he's struggling to move beyond. He's initially put off by women who talk too much, saying he prefers to listen. He tells Lizzy about a one-time date with an eager woman with whom he feels no chemistry. She might have been even chattier than Lizzy, but there's something in his new neighbor that makes him keep chipping away at her defensive veneer.
Director Bridget Leak ably steers these two fine actors toward an inevitable connection, one that might not be perfect but that will be what they both desperately need to move on with their lives. She keeps them circling one another warily until a drunken evening splits them wide open with confessions to one another.
Scenic designer Brian c. Mehring's side-by-side backyards and porches, each tailored to its owner's personality, are picture perfect, right down to Lizzy's patchy lawn, yard ornaments, and wind chimes and Jack's manicured grass and a statue of the Virgin Mary that Lizzy thinks is weirdly out of character. As always, Shannon Rae Lutz's props give detailed texture to these very human people. The first act ends with onstage nighttime rainfall after a booming thunderstorm, a moment of release and profound insight as Lizzy is drenched and Jack snoozes on his porch. It's a perfect match of tech and storytelling.
Maytag Virgin is a fine closing piece for Ensemble's 2022-2023 season, very much the kind of show that Producing Artistic Director Lynn Meyers likes to offer to her discriminating audiences. The dramedy has moments of high humor, but the momentum of Cefaly's script is toward something very meaningful about the restorative power of love and happiness.
Maytag Virgin runs through June 18, 2023, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit ensemblecincinnati.org or call 513-421-3555.