Blind leading the blind

Wrong Turn at Lungfish

Michael Peters and Lisa Caldwell are Peter Ravenswaal and Anita Merendino during rehearsal for <i>Wrong Turn at Lungfish.</i>

Michael Peters and Lisa Caldwell are Peter Ravenswaal and Anita Merendino during rehearsal for Wrong Turn at Lungfish.

Photo By David Robert

Clearly, Americans love a mismatch. For some reason, we never tire of watching two people who have nothing in common, who are also extremely short-sighted and unyielding, duke it out on the way to realizing they really need each other. Just take a look at Garry Marshall’s success.

With a resume that includes such classics as The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Pretty Woman and Beaches, Marshall seems to have the “opposites attract” formula down to a science. Now it comes to the stage in Wrong Turn at Lungfish, a feel-good hit, which Marshall co-wrote with Lowell Ganz and which Reno Little Theater will bring to life this weekend.

Lungfish, directed by Megan Conelly, tells the story of a newly-blind university dean Peter Ravenswaal (Michael Peters). Ravenswaal is in the hospital, dying of the same unnamed brain condition that blinded him, and he’s pissed off about it. So he takes it out on everyone in the hospital, which is why he’s receiving care from an unpleasant, self-absorbed student nurse (Amanda Alvey)—no one on the hospital staff will have anything more to do with him.

In walks young Anita Merendino, played by Lisa Caldwell. Anita, who volunteers to read to patients, couldn’t be more different from Ravenswaal. She’s optimistic, friendly and blissfully ignorant of the many verbal barbs he throws her way as, in a style reminiscent of Pygmalion, she reads aloud his requested classics, like Keats and Eliot—and some not-so-classic cheap erotic fiction. But somehow, Anita manages to work her way into the heart of this man whom no one else can stand.

The whole play takes place within Ravenswaal’s hospital room, and it’s propelled almost entirely by some fascinating dialogue between the two main characters. Together, they tackle such weighty issues as the meaning of life and the theory of evolution (from which the title of the play is derived), in a fresh, funny, thought-provoking way that never becomes heavy-handed.

Lungfish becomes a story about the blind leading the blind, as Anita’s fresh outlook (i.e. ditziness) somehow manages to disarm Ravenswaal, forcing him to see himself in a different light. Meanwhile, the old man’s wisdom forces Anita to confront the truth about her dysfunctional relationship with her abusive boyfriend, Dominic (Dale Tagtmeyer).

Eventually, Anita ends up a patient herself, thanks to Dominic, after which time he makes an unwelcome appearance in Ravenswaal’s room. His pinky ring, leather jacket, thick Jersey accent and unpredictable temper strike the perfect slimy note and make grumpy old Ravenswaal an unlikely hero as he urges Anita to get out of this destructive relationship.

Not only must Peters wrestle with an enormous amount of emotional dialogue in this one, but he does it with his eyes closed, making this role challenging and fun to watch. Lungfish also marks two interesting debuts: Lisa Caldwell returns to the stage as Anita after a 12-year hiatus and a career in graphic design, and Dale Tagtmeyer makes an impressive RLT debut here as Dominic.

Like any of the aforementioned Garry Marshall classics, a “shocking revelation” threatens to destroy the precious relationship that Ravenswaal and Anita have forged. Each of them is forced to confront personal demons, which isn’t easy for either of them. This makes Lungfish dark and profound, yet uplifting. Sort of like our heroes.