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Ghost & Spice Productions describes the company's approach to theater as "small but mighty," and both terms apply to its current production of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo. If this show were any mightier, they'd have to cart the audience away for some kind of rest cure. As it was, I felt like a tennis ball served up by champion Kim Clijsters — hard hit and zooming — and was bouncing off the wall for hours afterwards.
The Triangle is amazingly rich in various kinds of theater, but Ghost & Spice occupies a special niche. This company zeroes in on tautly written plays, most contemporary or recent, that combine exciting language with probing explorations of human behavior, which they then produce with a disarming and elegant naturalism. G&S is not concept- or theory-oriented. The company offers plenty of challenges to the viewers, but they are challenges to your understanding of humanity, not questions about what the heck that thing downstage is supposed to symbolize. This is partly because often there is not anything downstage — or elsewhere. Yet every Ghost & Spice show has what I would call high production values — not in the sense that term is often used, to mean expensive and extensive sets and costumes, but in the sense that everything is done to high standards, without excess.
Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo comprises Albee's influential first play, from 1958, and its recent prequel, which takes place between Peter and Ann immediately before the devastating scene between Peter and Jerry limned in "The Zoo Story," combining the one-acts into a longer two-act play. Because "The Zoo Story" is so widely-known, G&S made the decision to play it first, which worked well. Knowing the shocking ending of "Zoo" makes the revelations of "Homelife" all the more poignant. The set for "The Zoo Story" consists of two benches and a panorama of the New York skyline mounted above them: Central Park in a nutshell. For "Homelife," there are two couches and a rug. To quote my favorite Fred Chappell line, "any more would be a superfluity." This clean minimalism keeps our focus where it should be: on the extraordinarily fine acting and unerring direction.
In neither act does anything much happen: the play is almost all talk, conversational talk. So, to speak of fine acting in this context is to speak of small things — facial expression, gesture, limited movement, as well as huge abilities with the spoken words that allow the speeches to penetrate us both as talk and as literature. Rachel Klem directs Jeff Alguire and Rus Hames in "The Zoo Story," and that familiar text hit me like a sledgehammer. Hames as Jerry has most of the lines, and he was chillingly real. On opening night, there were a couple of flubs; but since all three of these actors are skilled at improvisation, it didn't matter a bit. Alguire, who has very few lines, was equally impressive at conveying his state of mind. Under Klem's direction, the scene builds almost without our notice until it reaches its emotional crest and horrible dénouement; and like Peter, we stagger from the room with incoherent cries, bloodied by the sudden contact with messy desperation.
Hames directs Klem and Alguire in "Homelife" with equal acumen. Old married people in particular will appreciate this scene, which could not have greater verisimilitude. Klem, dressed to match her sofas, is Ann, Peter's somewhat dissatisfied wife. In "action" that parallels that of "Zoo," she eventually pries some secrets out of her husband, getting him to reveal the source of his desire for a phlegmatic, uneventful, low-danger life. One of these secrets is quite terrible. Empathy, if you had not felt it for Peter before, swells your throat. If you could, you would guard him from his fate, which you know is coming, as he heads out the door all unsuspecting for his encounter with Jerry. What a gift this kind of theater is — a provocation to empathy, to kindness. Yet Albee makes us question the kindness of apparent kindness, and that question will keep you up late, long after the theater darkens.
The Ghost & Spice production of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo continues at Common Ground Theatre through Sept. 26. See our theatre calendar for details.