The snooty WASPish suburbs limned by the late American short-story writer and novelist John Cheever (1912-82) provide the exclusive upzoned backdrop for A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever. Written and directed by Wordshed Productions co-founder and co-artistic director Matthew Spangler, this provocative stage adaptation of three Cheever stories — "O Youth and Beauty!," "The Wrysons," and "The Swimmer" — was performed last weekend in the Studio Six Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a fundraiser to offset the expenses of the company's Aug. 9-14 trip to perform at the Bedlam Theatre at the world famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In many ways, Spangler's third pass at Cheever's emotionally and spiritually bankrupt characters is a mid- to late 20th century version of William Makepeace Thackery's Vanity Fair.
A host of sharply etched characterizations fueled Wordshed's high-octane July 30-Aug. 1 production of A Paradise It Seems. Matt Spangler was a stitch as squinty eyed fading former athlete Cash Bentley, a former hurdler who brings many a party to a premature end by getting drunk and trying to reenact his collegiate track triumphs, using furniture from his neighbors' living rooms as the hurdles.
Hannah Blevins is delightful as Bentley's mortally embarrassed wife, Louise; and Jordan Smith and Maria Chrysanthou contribute acid portraits of the insufferably snobbish Donald and Irene Wryson. Sharlene Thomas created four distinct characterizations for the WASP matrons whom she played with such ennui; and Chris Chiron stole the show with his passionate performance as poor bewildered Neddy Merrill, whose fateful decision to swim home from a Sunday-afternoon party — through his neighbors' backyard pools — has disastrous (and entirely unexpected) consequences for him, his marriage, and his home.
The entire cast smoothly shifts gears as they play multiple roles with wry humor and great panache. Spangler, Blevins, Chrysanthou, and Chiron are highly accomplished young actors for whom the sky is, quite literally, the limit; and Smith and Thomas are veteran performers who always give the older characters whom they play surprising depth and gravitas. All in all, this was a dream cast for a dream production, which dramatist Matt Spangle (who doubles as the show's director) staged with considerable style and wit on a splendid set designed by Rob Hamilton to accent the "boxes" that the denizens of Shady Hills have built for themselves.
Donations: Wordshed Productions is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and Matt Spangler estimates that expenses for the group's trip to represent the best of Triangle theater at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will run $12,000, with only about a third of that amount raised to date. To help defray expenses for this worthy enterprise, please mail a generous tax-deductible check to Wordshed Productions, 132 Beechwood Drive, Carrboro. NC 27510.
Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/index.htm. John Cheever: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cheever.htm. Edinburgh Festival Fringe: http://www.edfringe.com/. Bedlam Theatre: http://www.bedlamfringe.co.uk/.