It may start as a dark and stormy night, but Trading Post by Larry Ketron is anything but dark. It is a delightful play, filled with folksy humor, colorful but believable characters, and some definite insights about the importance of communication.
Director Wendy Koeppl has won awards and acclaim for her productions at the Boise Little Theater, and she displays a sure hand with the gentle relationships in Trading Post. The action takes place in Northern Tennessee in the 1970s, hence the tuneful (and familiar) pre-show and intermission music. The wonderfully realistic set, designed by John Myers and dressed by Koeppl and assistant director Cricket Langworthy, is a chock-full-of-goodies second-hand store owned by middle-aged Wallace H. Gibbons.
Gibbons is played with shy charm and a generous good nature by Kevin Butler. When the play opens, his best friend of 16 years, Claudia, is moving to Canada to care for her ailing sister, and an aura of sadness underlies the friendly banter as the two try to cope with impending separation. Anne Hamilton creates a bright and crisp Claudia, very articulate except when it comes to expressing actual emotion for Wallace, especially since she has to deal with his inability or reluctance to share his feelings for her. Hamilton reveals aspects of her character gradually, with style and grace that's fascinating to watch.
Representing the younger generation, Claudia's wild and free daughter, Katherine, and Wallace's lusty, man-about-town son, Jim, are dating, but have their own problems as they tread the rocky road to commitment--without much success. Autumn Haynes is perfect as the gorgeous Katherine, sparkling with prickly independence, as she spars with Darrell Boatwright, who portrays Jim as a typical son, disapproving of his father and his staid lifestyle but marked by it nonetheless.
Like a shot in the arm, Gibbon's customer and friend Louis arrives with a startling announcement amid the opening chitchat, shaking up what was an ordinary day and causing the two friends to look a little harder at their relationship. Steve Martin, sporting a wonderful Southern accent and down-home manner, brings in a stack of dresses and asks for a black suit to wear to his wife's funeral. His reaction of relief at his new-found freedom, rather than grief, is darkly hilarious, and his later shift to rage at an unexpected discovery is riveting and heartbreaking.
But there's nothing sad about this tale. With Louis finding a new lady friend in curvy Shelby, played with sexy petulance by Krista Williams, and Claudia's clever manipulations of her relationship with Wallace, you know we are headed for a happy trail ahead.
In the final scene, when Claudia persuades Wallace to change "roles" with her, a little humorous cross-dressing sets the mood for mutual expressions of affection that neither manages in their day-to-day lives. While the scene at first seems to drag, it turns into a funny and explosively therapeutic exercise for cast and audience alike.
Perhaps the best thing about Trading Post is that it seems too short. We're just getting to know and love the characters when it's over. If there's ever a sequel, I'll be first in line for tickets.
Stage Coach Theatre, Hillcrest Plaza at Orchard and Overland. 7:30 p.m. on Thur.; 8:15 p.m. Fri.-Sat. through April 29. 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, April 23. Tickets $12 Fri.-Sat.; $10 Thur. and Sun. For reservations, call 342-2000.