Thursday night, Mrs. K and I took our first trip out to the IndyFringe Theater near downtown Indy to see the premiere of Amy Pettinella’s new offering  Almost Heaven. Presented as part of  the 2011 Spirit & Place Festival,  the play is about an elderly stroke victim, Otto Klommerman, who is eager to be out of his present residence in a nursing home. He is a widower and a retired welder and misses the years past – when he was in his prime. More than that, he is angry about being old and about all his losses, including a dead wife and daughter, and an absent son. Ms. Pettinella directs.

The play is set in Otto’s room at the home and follows his encounters with his daughter, Justine: who is faithful to, but disdained by her father – his nurse, LaVerne: who tries to heal his “wounds” to mixed results – the spirit of his dead wife, Claudia: who reminisces about better times – and Mrs. Mayfair: Otto’s dementia-ridden, down the hall neighbor, who wanders about and who briefly believes Otto is her long dead husband.

The Players (from left): Christina King, Joanna Winston, Larry Haworth, Vickie Smith and Mary Zurfas

Veteran actor Larry Haworth takes on the part of Otto and finds a steady measure of cantankerous regret to fuel the role. He is expressive and inward-turned in all the right places as his Otto unhappily rides the situation he is stuck in. The script certainly shows that much of Otto’s problem is himself and we get to know that fully in Haworth’s portrayal.

Justine, is masterfully played by Vickie Smith, who shows a deep range of emotions as she reacts to and parries with her dad. We see the dismay of dealing with the difficult father who discounts her visits and longs instead to see her departed sister and impossibly busy brother. She is steadfast in her caring for this unfair Dad and we can feel her sorrow in a moody performance of Justine’s frustration and sorrow. Ms Smith leads us to an emotional high point with action and voice. It was a very enjoyable performance.

Joanna Winston as LaVerne and Christina King as Claudia are effective in their roles, but I did not think the script gave them enough of a circumstance to make their turns as dynamic as Ms Smith’s since we lack the conflict we have in the first scene. For the most part, Otto gets to repeat what we already have heard about him, with some variances of course, but not many. Ms. Winston’s facial expressions as she reacts to Otto’s density and disgust expand her role a good deal and Ms. King’s airiness and hot pink toned, breezy costume added to the enjoyment of her portrayal.

The final visitor, Mrs. Mayfair, is played by Mary Zurfas, who does a good job with a brief, one-faceted role. Her visit results in a bit of turnaround for Otto, but it comes from a not very emotional giving over of self on his part.

You might be able to tell I was disappointed by a lack of depth in this uneven script. The first scene showed so much promise and emotion, but the following scenes unfortunately did not live up to that promise. This is Otto’s story and the 3 later scenes do not advance that story with many new meaningful facets or information. There is a lack of shape to this part of the play and I am afraid I was expectant of more of what we saw in the first scene.

Also, pacing was uneven in many places, unnecessary slow in others. At first I thought it might have been to set up Otto’s older, slower inner pace, but if that was the idea, it did not carry.

One possible solution might have been for the playwright to have recruited another theater-savvy person to direct this work. Often that can provide the second set of eyes needed to uncover possible problems and inspire changes. And it is especially nice when the playwright is on hand to work side-by-side with a director.

It isn’t that I did not enjoy these characters and the theater experience. The first scene between Otto and Justine alone was worth the price of admission (a very thrifty $10, by the way). I just think that there could have been more there. I believe the script needed more time to gel.

Almost Heaven continues through the weekend with shows Saturday night at 8 pm and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm. The theater is located at 701 E. St Claire St. in Indianapolis. Doors open one half hour before curtain and parking is available behind the theater.

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