The plot of playwright Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green is quite simple and predictable. And Baron’s script is not as poignant as it seems to have been meant to be, especially since its message of accepting people’s differences – particularly the differences presented in this play – has been heard before, and in far more effective ways. That being said, the Playcrafters Barn Theatre’s production of Baron’s work is truly touching, with its strong sentimentality helping to disguise the play’s weaknesses.
It’s evident that director Greg Bouljon holds the script in high esteem, given his careful, impassioned staging of this odd-couple comedy/drama (and with his director’s notes in the program confirming his respect for Baron’s piece). If considering only the written words, I’d describe Visiting Mr. Green as preachy, somewhat trite, and – as it’s now more than 10 years old – barely provocative in its themes. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t get into why the themes might be considered provocative.) Given Bouljon’s treatment of it, however, the play is not without merit if viewed as a study of the emotional growth of two disparate individuals ... and if you set aside the exhausted message Baron apparently wants to pound home to his audiences.
During Saturday’s presentation, I was captivated by the very different acting approaches taken by the play’s performers. As Ross Gardiner, a young man ordered by the courts to visit the titular, elderly character every week for six months (as punishment for nearly hitting him with his car), Bryan Lopez seemingly brings himself to the role, portraying the character by simply employing certain aspects of his own personality. It’s a naturalistic approach – Lopez’s welcome sincerity creates a believable character because it doesn’t come across as though he’s acting – although, arguably, it doesn’t fit the early stages of the play, when his amicable, helpful nature doesn’t match his verbalization of Ross’ unwillingness to visit Mr. Green. However, as his Ross quickly settles into a comfortable acceptance of his court-ordered punishment, and he begins to actually like the older man, Lopez’s style fits perfectly, endearing his character to the audience.
Tom Swenson, on the other hand, completely changes his voice and body language to create Mr. Green. Swenson, who created two impressively distinct roles in Playcrafters’ Treasure Island, comes up with yet another wholly different character here. With his consistent, accurate accent and body language, Swenson becomes an elderly Jewish man, and had I not known Swenson from previous productions, I would guess that he would walk off the stage and talk and move with the same sounds and mannerisms of his Mr. Green. He’s that believable. As if his voice and movements weren’t enough, Swenson also shades his portrayal with lovely degrees of sadness, longing, uncertainty, dismissal, and worry. Swenson is an acting gem, one to be cherished by directors and actors who get to work with him, and by audiences who get to see him in action.
Once again, I’m pleased to see Playcrafters make use of a (not-quite) half wall and door so that the actors do not have to pantomime turning a knob when entering Mr. Green’s apartment. Yet beyond that front door, Bouljon’s set design is remarkably detailed, with a convincingly lived-in look. From the books sitting on the bookshelves to the papers scattered around the room – even to the way the afghan lies across the back of the couch – nothing here seems to be set-decorated; it doesn’t feel like a stagey playing area so much as a true-life apartment.
Paul Workman’s sound designs are also notably believable, with the exception of the cell phone’s ring, which is obviously coming from off-stage (in the barn’s rafters, to be precise), rather than from the phone in Lopez’s pocket. Other than that unrealistic noise, though, Workman’s work on the show’s aural enhancements is impressive, offering precise volume and tones.
My main complaint with Playcrafters’ production, beyond the script, lies in the lengthy scene changes during which not much of the scene actually changes. Admittedly, these unfortunate pauses are necessities, as they allow time for the actors to change their costumes. However, given that nothing happens on stage during several scene changes, they’re still rather tough to swallow; the audience is left wondering why it’s taking so long to get on with the play. Otherwise, Playcrafters’ Visiting Mr. Green is a stirring effort, with the emotionalism in Bouljon’s work rising above Baron’s script.
For tickets and information, call (309)762-0330 or visit Playcrafters.com.