Rogue Theatre reworks Terrence McNally’s potential-for-love story
On a night when the roar of Silver Dollar Speedway racecars returned to Chico—a true local harbinger of spring—a cozy crowd gathered in the city’s most intimate community theater venue to get answers to the question, “We’ve had sex, what now?” Two of the area’s most talented and experienced actresses, Sherri Bagley and Betty Burns, held the crowd spellbound for two hours Friday at 1078 Gallery, in the Rogue Theatre Company’s latest, Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune.
The focus of the romantic comedy—written by Terrence McNally with roles performed on Broadway over the years by such luminaries as Stanley Tucci and Rosie Perez—is the relationship, or actually the question of whether a passionate one-night stand should turn into a relationship. The Rogue twist was to cast a lesbian couple in the principle roles, which, according to stage manager Delovely Delisa Freistadt, is the first time the play has been carried out this way.
Bagley, as the feminine yet insecure Frankie, is a long-haired, admittedly uneducated waitress; Burns, as the less feminine and overassertive Johnnie, is a short-haired, slightly more educated short-order cook. Frankie is full of self-doubt. She clearly enjoys Johnnie’s company, both physically and conversationally, but vacillates about whether she wants to enter into a relationship, especially with this particular bold and brazen woman. Johnnie is single-minded in her infatuation and declared love for Frankie. “You don’t give up; you’re like a rat terrier with a bone,” Frankie says of Johnnie’s persistence.
While the audience members may have pondered awkward relationships from their own past, Johnnie’s Shakespearean misquotes and quirky worldly observations kept them laughing out loud.
When Frankie lets her guard down, she clearly enjoys Johnnie’s company, laughing at her jokes and talking about her life. Trouble is, Frankie is in a struggle with herself, not about being in a lesbian relationship—it’s not clear whether either woman is publicly out—but about whether she’s ready to embark on a relationship with her quirky new friend. “I want to watch TV, eat ice cream,” Frankie says in a moment of stonewalling independence. “I want to be alone. I’m trapped in my own apartment with a maniac.”
As the production’s only characters, except for an offstage radio DJ who brings Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” to Frankie’s apartment, Burns and Bagley are exceptional. Burns’ loving glances are sincere, Bagley’s mood changes convincing, and together the couple displays a plausible chemistry.
The Rogue-sters make excellent use of the 1078’s great room, creating a more-than-believable Brooklyn apartment. A working toaster created a fragrant aroma that permeated the room, drawing the intimate audience closer to the characters as Frankie and Johnnie shared a sandwich.
In the end, the woman-to-woman component does not cause the production’s essence to stray from the original. Instead, what makes the play work here, as it would’ve with a fine-acting hetero couple, is the deep—and believable—exploration of two co-workers who, after succumbing to their animal instincts, are left to sort out their feelings.
Burns and Bagley each display their exceptional dramatic ranges and line-memorization skills as they engage in personality-revealing pillow talk (and kitchen talk), from apprehensive to assertive, from carefree to self-conscious. While homophobes might squirm in their seats at the sight of women kissing, and others might recoil at the very brief views of naked breasts and derrieres—those folks probably aren’t part of the Rogue’s target audience anyway—this is a play about the relationship of two vibrant, easy-to-relate-to people.