REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
At the beginning of The Woolgatherer, you know there is something wrong with spinsterish salesgirl Rose when the first thing she says to stranded truck driver Cliff is to read a suicide note left by her former roommate. Thus begins this disquieting, funny, and sometimes shocking two-person play, which was written by William Mastrosimone. First staged in 1979, The Woolgatherer profiles two lonely people who have nothing in common except that they are in the same room together, yet by the end of the play, they have found each other, soothing their respective senses of isolation and loneliness.
Rose lives a spartan existence in a drab, mildewy Philadelphia apartment that she has furnished with castoffs; things no one else wanted to keep – a random chair, dead plants, what looks like an abandoned refrigerator (with a padlock attached), and a rickety crate that serves as a rarely used second chair. The apartment’s windows have been boarded shut, a metaphor for her personality, and she walks around the room with her arms folded, self-protectingly, a birdlike figure with her hair in an unattractive bun. She is pretty, but does not let anyone see this side of her, especially Cliff, a brash, in-your-face truck driver who is living in his own kind of prison, entrapped in the confining cab of a big rig, driving from one end of the country to the other, living on truck stop coffee and not even being able to enjoy the stultifying contemporary music he hears on the truck’s radio.
Rose works at the candy counter at the local five-and-dime, hoping to meet a man who will rescue her from her misery. She has been traumatized after witnessing the pranksterish murder of four cranes at the local zoo by a gang of punks, and along with a case of hives (possibly psychosomatically induced) and hemophilia, rarely ventures out of her apartment. “I can’t think of anyone nice,” Rose murmurs to Cliff. Despite his equally lonely existence, Cliff is outgoing and outspoken – he is full of bad jokes and profanity as he teases Rose about her apartment, her nosy neighbor, and her windowless, loveless existence.
Both Rose and Cliff have their obsessions; Rose relives the horrifying incident when she witnessed the birds’ murder while Cliff longs for the rush of seeing the Pacific Ocean at the end of his cross-country journeys.
Somehow, these two misfits manage to come together, but not before an emotional outburst that exposes Rose as having something more wrong with her than just loneliness. As Rose, Jenna Scanlon is marvelous, not just in her meandering, odd speech patterns, but also when she is not speaking. Her eyes dart about furtively, as if she expects a boulder to fall out of the sky and crush her at any moment. Playing Cliff is Eric J. Stein, a remarkable actor who has the tour de force moment of the play – an extended monolog during which he lies in Rose’s bed, smoking a joint (consisting of an herbal blend that smells exactly like the real thing), and talking about his excruciatingly tedious life as a truck driver. We are mesmerized by Mastrosimone’s word images of desolate truck stops, encounters with faceless, officious wimps with clipboards, and the endless stretch of asphalt between New Jersey and the West Coast. “You drink hot coffee till you can’t taste nothing but the hot,” Cliff tells Rose, finally whispering in a disquieting pique of frustration, “What am I DOING?”
Larry Swerdlove directs Scanlon and Stein with an understated mastery. In the penultimate scene, Cliff (and we) learn the meaning behind the play’s title, and Rose becomes almost psychotically paralyzed, bathed in a pallid blue spotlight, while Cliff attempts to relieve her emotional agony at being found out.
The Woolgatherer is a charmer – a roller coaster ride of emotions that shows that imprisonment comes in many different forms, and that two oddly incompatible people can be brought together by their common craving for human connection.
The Woolgatherer plays through July 20 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage calendar.