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'Women and Wallace' dark, funny, moving

HART's coming-of-age dramedy hits the mark in two intense acts


When faced with a show that is completely new to me, I deliberately go in with a blank slate — no internet research to learn about other folks’ opinions.

In the case of HART Theatre’s current production of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Women and Wallace, this was definitely the right approach — nothing I read would have prepared me anyway.

Novice director Eric Lonergan admits he had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to take the helm of this complex, funny and darkly troubling play. With the help of some mainstays of the HART community and a remarkable cast, he has succeeded in presenting a riveting, entertaining and thought-provoking show that grips and holds the audience through two very intense acts.

Stripped to its essence, Women and Wallace is sort of a coming-of-age dramedy about a young man negotiating the murky waters of childhood and adolescence while working out his confusing relationships with a series of girls and women. While the audience sees Wallace at 6, 13, 16 and 18, the role is often played by a single actor. Fortunately, Lonergan was able to cast a group of age-appropriate skilled theater veterans (ranging from second-graders through young adults) to fill the roles of Wallace and the girls in his life — yet the majority of the cast members are not yet old enough to vote. The show’s dark edge starts when a second-grade Wallace comes home from school to find his mother has committed suicide (shortly after sending him off to school with a peanut butter and banana sandwich). Over the course of the next 12 years, things just get worse, as a deeply troubled Wallace fulfills his own prophecy (“women leave you”) by driving the girls and women in his life away whenever they try to get too close.

The character of Wallace at 18 is the key to the show, as he provides narration to the scenes involving his younger self in Act I, then carries the role solo throughout Act II. Area newcomer Carter Howard nails it with a mixture of naivety and cynicism that perfectly captures not only the character’s genuinely enthusiastic, hormone-fueled adolescence but also a carefully constructed carapace and the mess of pain, terror and need that lie beneath the surface. Among his nine women, some spectacular performances emerge from the adolescents — in particular, the cheerfully lascivious Lili (Nicolette Regina) and her sweetly sincere sister Nina (Nina Skeele). Dalene Young (as Wallace’s grandmother) hits just the right notes, seemingly dotty but with a core of iron. Fully one-third of the cast comes from the Bell family — Cameron and Carson as younger Wallaces, Courtney as an early girlfriend, and Julie as the “perfect” mom (except for the suicide part, of course). It’s hard to imagine how the show would have been cast without this talented local family to fill such sensitive roles.

Without frequent infusions of lots of really funny material (e.g. “She was like Sylvia Plath, but without the publishing contract”), Women and Wallace might be tough to watch, but Lonergan and his cast have found just the right balance to embrace the show’s comedy without trivializing the show’s darker elements.

With its irreverent mix of overt and covert sexual and Oedipal themes, the show is really not appropriate for children. That said, get your tickets soon — the show only runs one more weekend, and given its relative obscurity it is not likely to come around again in the near future.

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) presents Women and Wallace through Sunday, Feb. 28, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.