According to the elusive Theory of Everything, espoused in Jacquelyn Reingold’s String Fever, life is composed of a series of hidden dimensions that fold up within one another and overlap, creating unseen, generally unacknowledged connections, and giving meaning to even our most random encounters.
The concept is both dauntingly complex and oddly simplistic, much like String Fever itself. Reingold’s play wrestles with weighty themes – mortality, late motherhood, the fragility (and near-impossibility) of modern relationships – but does so in an easily accessible manner, sometimes to the point of sitcom-cuteness. Reingold’s script doesn’t possess the depth its author appears to be striving for, but it’s certainly engaging, and filled with lovely, searching monologues and conversations; it’s a work of true feeling, if not always insight.
Thankfully, feeling is what New Ground Theatre’s current production of String Fever has in spades. As directed by Corinne Johnson, who recently did a sensational job orchestrating the Shakespearean intricacies of St. Ambrose University’s Much Ado About Nothing, this stage production has a cinematic fluidity; characters traverse through the past and present, between reality and fantasy, and the director’s invention in these scenes is often ticklish. (I loved it when the lead’s best friend – on the other end of an implied phone conversation – magically usurps her pal’s place on a dinner date.)
Yet Johnson’s contributions extend beyond her clever staging. She appears to genuinely empathize with String Fever’s central figure – Lily, a 40-year-old music teacher and amateur violinist – and makes Lily’s triumphs and heartbreaks resonate without pushing the show’s themes or emphasizing its poignancy. Nothing in this show feels pushy; Johnson’s understated, elegant work – properly accentuated by Chris Eicher’s lighting design – makes buoyant what could easily, in lesser hands, be heavy-handed.
As Kurtenbach plays her, Lily is completely unexceptional, and I mean that as the highest possible praise – she feels real. Like Johnson’s direction, nothing about Kurtenbach’s work reads as phony or forced; her performance is lived-in, and emotionally forthright, and defiantly free of melodrama. When the actress gets the chance to pull out the stops – as when Lily finally rails against Matthew (Adam Clough), the lover who abandoned her – Kurtenbach’s skill is unmistakable. But it’s the moments that could be perceived as “throwaway” that give her portrayal its heart – Lily’s girlish, can-you-believe-what-I-just-did? exuberance after her first night with physicist beau Frank (Aaron Randolph III), her relaxed, matter-of-fact candor with her dad (Pat Flaherty), her shell-shocked reaction to seeing Matthew at a funeral. These are minor moments that, combined, have spectacular cumulative impact; Kurtenbach’s strong, focused performance is inspiring.
In several scenes in String Fever, Kurtenbach is paired against Laura Esping as Lily’s salt-of-the-earth pal, Janey, and when the two share the stage, you wish their scenes would go on all night. Esping isn’t on stage nearly as often as you’d like, but her every appearance makes you smile. She possesses a wonderfully emotive stage voice and is supremely funny, and when Janey is diagnosed with cancer early in the play, Esping pulls off a minor miracle – she makes you not dread the play’s inevitable stop-and-smell-the-roses sequences. (Esping actually makes you wish there were more of them.) Janey is probably the String Fever figure from whom we glean the least amount of personal information, but with Esping in the role, you couldn’t want for more.
With Lily’s father Artie and her Icelandic-goofball friend Gisli (David Bonde), Reingold has forged two robust comic characters, and the New Ground actors playing them do so with vigor. I’ve now seen Pat Flaherty in four shows in the past six months, and I’m beginning to think he’s incapable of delivering an uninspired performance; Flaherty’s joie de vivre and actor’s delight, coupled with his effortless believability, are captivating. And despite a wobbly accent, Bonde scores numerous laughs as the sweetly clueless Gisli – this adorable boob greets trauma as a minor inconvenience in a day spent pleasantly sloshed.
Clough and Randolph fare slightly less well. Both actors are polished, and certainly seem committed to their roles, but for String Fever to fully work – for Lily’s romantic plights to be of consequence – we need to understand these characters’ inherent differences, and despite their physical and vocal contrasts, Clough and Randolph seem ... pretty much the same.
They’re sincere, and they’re honest (which isn’t the same), but they’re not distinct; we don’t quite glimpse the cracks in their earnest armor. When Lily vacillates in her affections between the men, we need to realize why she’s leaning toward one or the other, but here, it’s as if she were choosing between vanilla and French vanilla; both characters come off as really nice guys, and I don’t think that’s what Reingold had in mind when she created them.
Yet while you could ask for more from the romantic entanglements in New Ground’s season-closer, Johnson’s helming of the show remains topnotch, as does Kurtenbach’s performance in it. Their exemplary work makes this Fever feel more like a dream.
For tickets, call (563)326-7529. For more information, visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org).