Photograph by Dana Grover
Page turner: Young Camila Frausto reads to cranky, bedridden Fred Sharkey in 'Wrong Turn at Lungfish.'
Words bind an old man and a young woman in Northside's 'Wrong Turn at Lungfish'
By Marianne Messina
HOSPITAL-ROOM humor from a terminal patient on "bedpan alley," Pygmalion May/December relationship (girl in May, of course)—Wrong Turn at Lungfish, in which a city girl makes hospital visits to read to a blinded professor, consists of a bunch of things we've probably seen too much of. However, Northside Theatre's production, set on Richard T. Orlando's simple stage (hospital bed and a couple of armchairs), manages to take a right turn, due in great part to actress Camila Frausto as the reader. The character of former university dean Peter Ravenswaal (Fred Sharkey) makes you wonder if either member of the writing team, Garry Marshall or Lowell Ganz, ever met a professor outside a classroom.
Ravenswaal is defined in shorthand by his most admired authors, Schopenhauer, Stendahl, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot (a pretty generic undergraduate book list for a dean). Fortunately, he has a lot of funny lines: "What's your favorite [TV] station?" "Off." He refers to daily feuds with his nurse as their "relationship" of "hostile patient, bitchy nurse." And Sharkey gives the lines a good, stodgy old-guy delivery. Also to Ganz and Marshall's credit, they gave nurse Lucy Crane a rounded personality, making her neither a heavy nor a lightweight. Actress Kimberly Kay can purr with nursey nurturing. As both frustrated authority and indulgent party girl, she's convincingly good-hearted overall.
Since Ravenswaal's unnamed deadly disease has taken his sight, he must have a reader. When he gets reader Anita Merendino (Frausto), underread and underclass in her New York accent, Ravenswaal predictably insults her about everything from "the nasal quality" of her voice to the "hideous and banal" nature of her problems. She doesn't take it personally: "You do that to everyone. I think it's a laugh." Tight timing and natural rhythms enhance the charming rapport between these two. Whenever she begins to digress, he thumps his cane, and she instantly jumps tracks in her narrative. Frausto fills the drab hospital room with brilliance and intrigue. Even the intrepid, unimpressed way she reads poetry is original.
Inevitable discussions about man's higher brain functions and the whole terminal deterioration thing take a back seat to wonderment: Where is this girl coming from? Anita wears a smartly sensual black dress on some visits and simple jeans and blouse on others (Eileen Hansen did the costume design). This curious wardrobe announces that the usual codes are not at work with this girl (though a more specific reason for the outfits becomes clear later in the play). Frausto's unstudied freshness (Marisa Tomei comes to mind) maintains an enticing ability to delight and confuse as Anita blurs lines between affection, sexuality and practicality.
Later, when we meet her handsome but abusive thug boyfriend, Dominic (Paul Ulloa in tight, white muscle shirt), she is as confusing as ever. Anita sweetly explains that Dominic "hits when he doesn't understand" and "thinks people write poetry to make him feel stupid." Yes, the classic case of smart girl playing dumb to keep dumb boyfriend. "I'm a survivor," she tells Ravenswaal. This connects her to his questions about man's higher-order brain as a survival trait.
By keeping things real and causal, the production brings out the best in the script as its characters test the value of intelligence in the face of death and in service to survival. The exchange between Ravenswaal and Anita ultimately is a trade deal of strategies for happiness and survival. In her simple acceptance of a happy afterlife, Anita thinks brutality can be erased by changing the way you look at it. Ravenswaal believes that higher thinking leads to choices and greater possibility, yet he's miserably agnostic. When they discuss the afterlife, Anita asks so offhandedly you could miss it, "Why can't you believe in something that makes you happy?" In the play's ongoing discussion, her question bundles nicely with Ravenswaal's evolutionary hypothesis. Man's path from bug to beast wasn't about developing the most sophisticated survival equipment; his development was simply the product of "a wrong turn at the lungfish."
Wrong Turn at Lungfish, a Northside Theatre Company presentation, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through July 15 at 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.78720)
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