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Old Plays, New Blood

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Lanford Wilson-s play Talley-s Folly won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, but the play feels like it could have been written half a century ago. Sophocles wrote Antigone almost twenty-five hundred years ago, but the play feels like it was finished yesterday.

Both these plays-one an ancient classic, the other, a modern one-are currently playing in Los Angeles and both succeed thanks to the actresses in the title roles.

In South Coast Repertory-s production of Antigone, the title character is played by Alyssa Bresnahan. In this somewhat modern and abstract production, her Antigone looks like Laura Croft but is hardly two-dimensional. Her fiery performance calls to mind the Irish actress Fiona Shaw in her recent turn as Medea. Bresnahan may lack Shaw-s ability to peel away and reveal layers of guilt, compassion, and rage-but her Antigone is vivid and memorable. She is complimented by a authoritative Tiresias-played in a lackadaisical, almost Larry David-like fashion by Hal Landon Jr.-and Randle Mell-s strong, if someone stiff, Creon.

The director, Kate Whoriskey, sets the play against a curved metallic wall with a huge gash in it. This breech effectively serves many purposes throughout the play, both symbolically and theatrically. The combat-chic costumes suggest Chechnya or Yugoslavia, and headscarves vaguely imply Afghanistan, but for the most part Whoriskey avoids underlining the more topical elements in Sophocles- tragedy.

There are some bizarre touches, like a dance number with men in gas masks, but the use of original music-much of it influenced by black spirituals-rarely distracts. For all the experimental elements-more than one expects to see at South Coast frankly-both Whoriskey-s direction and Brendan Kennelly-s translation succeed because they let Sophocles- text speak for itself.

The Pasadena Playhouse is an even more conservative house than South Coast Rep. It tends to stage very straight-forward productions of very straight-forward plays-which luckily in the case of Talley-s Folly, is a perfect fit. Lanford Wilson-s play is an old-fashioned two-hander: two characters, one set, lots of talk.

Written in the late seventies, Talley-s Folly takes place on July 4th 1944 and it definitely feels like a piece from that era, resembling works like Ah Wilderness! and Mornings at Seven. But as old-fashioned as it is, the play still works. Wilson writes excellent dialogue and is a master at capturing the bizarre ritual of two lonely opposites slowly giving into their awkward desires.

Wilson-s two opposites are played here by Michael Santo, who steps into the role that earned Judd Hirsch a Tony nomination in the original Broadway production, and Angela Reed, who plays Talley. Santo doesn-t quite make his beard or Jewish accent seem natural, but he gives a clear reading of the character and manages to navigate the seven minutes of schticky patter that opens the play.

It is Reed though that anchors the hour-and-half long reconciliation that is Talley-s Folly. Her posture and facial expressions consistently hint at Talley-s inner fears and wants. She looks not unlike a young Laura Linney, and her carefully controlled anger and passion resembles the acclaimed stage actress- technique.

Reed-s speech-in addition to her appearance-is perfectly tuned to her character-s rebellious southern background. When she is composed and speaking to her older lover, Reed-s voice sounds like that of a college graduate trying to shake her small-town Missouri past; but when she lets her guard down during more heated moments, her daddy-s girl drawl reveals itself, reminding both the character and the audience of how far her life has veered off course.

Both Reed and Bresnahan have worked with good small theaters in New York but are making their debuts in these larger Los Angeles houses. Cheers to the casting directors who found these two young, promising stage actresses-as new blood has a way of making old plays come alive.

Antigone plays until the end of the month at the Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa; Talley-s Folly runs through Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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