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posted: 2/28/2014 5:00 AM

Steel Beam's 'Portugal' needs work

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  • Donna Steele and Pat Able play ex-spouses who reunite for their daughter's engagement party in Steel Beam Theatre's world premiere of "The Bay of Portugal" by Richard Culliton.

      Donna Steele and Pat Able play ex-spouses who reunite for their daughter's engagement party in Steel Beam Theatre's world premiere of "The Bay of Portugal" by Richard Culliton.
    Photo courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

  • The arrival of her ex-husband Jack (Pat Able, right) ignites sparks between Gwen (Donna Steele) and her current husband Norm (Bill Sherry, left) in Richard Culliton's dramedy "The Bay of Portugal," in its world premiere at Steel Beam Theatre.

      The arrival of her ex-husband Jack (Pat Able, right) ignites sparks between Gwen (Donna Steele) and her current husband Norm (Bill Sherry, left) in Richard Culliton's dramedy "The Bay of Portugal," in its world premiere at Steel Beam Theatre.
    Photo courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

 
 

One thing about Steel Beam Theatre, it's not afraid to take a chance on a new work. Over the years, the St. Charles company has produced several new shows and, for that, it deserves commendation. But premiering a new play involves risk; sometimes that risk pays off and the show's a delight. Other times, it's a disappointment.

"The Bay of Portugal" falls into the latter category.

The play takes its name from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," a charmer about political and emotional exiles finding love and acceptance in the Forest of Ardenne. But the connection is only tangential. With thinly defined characters, truncated scenes and fussy exposition, this dramedy about growing up and pursuing one's dreams feels like a soap opera. And for good reason, since playwright Richard Culliton spent several decades writing for such daytime dramas as "All My Children," "Days of Our Lives" and "General Hospital."

The award-winning Culliton embraces all the standard tropes: betrayal, infidelity, unrequited love, self-sacrifice and revenge along with requisite dysfunctional parent-child relationships and the perennial struggle to maintain social status. The show is even paced like a daytime drama. The first act in particular felt like it was timed for commercials.

One of the main problems is the characters, whose every line seems to have been crafted as a quip. We don't much care about them. Consequently, we don't much care what happens to them.

Instead of a forest, the action unfolds in the well-appointed backyard of the upper middle-class West suburban home of Gwen (Donna Steele) and her husband Norm (Bill Sherry), the wealthy owner of several car dealerships.

The play opens with the unwelcome arrival of Jack (Pat Able), Gwen's ex-husband. They met more than 30 years earlier when both were touring small-town America performing Shakespeare. After a whirlwind courtship, they married and had a daughter. Not long after, Gwen -- desperate for security -- left Jack and acting for a comfortable life in the 'burbs. Jack continued to act, appearing in commercials and on the occasional TV drama, while supplementing his income as a carpenter.

The former couple, whose stereotypically antagonistic relationship is (of course) underscored by a gruff affection, reunite for an engagement party for their only daughter, thirty-something Maggie (Valerie Zawada), who has a predictably prickly relationship with her mother.

"She doesn't ask for much," Maggie says of Gwen, "just that I eradicate my entire personality."

Rounding out the cast is Keith Compton's Cameron, an accommodating young man consistently underestimated by the people around him, including his fiance.

Steele, saddled with witchy asides, has the particularly thankless task of playing the daytime diva. And while the actors do what they can with the roles, the performances feel tentative.

Culliton throws a lot at us, perhaps hoping something will stick. But neither the writing, which suffers from the occasional continuity problem, nor Terry Domschke's direction establish any tension. The result is a lackluster production of a play that needs work.

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