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KEEPING HOPE ALIVE: Diane Tasca's Alma admires Andrew Harkins' John from afar.

Alma Matters

Diane Tasca anchors 'Eccentricities of a Nightingale' as a woman who refuses to abandon hope

By Matthew Craggs

IN THE BEST instances of local theater, small and intimate venues overflow with engaging performances. Reverse that, and you occasionally find wonderful material mishandled. The Pear Avenue Theatre's latest production, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, succinctly highlights both sides of the coin. One of Tennessee Williams' lesser-performed plays, Eccentricities of a Nightingale is a rewrite of his more regularly produced play Summer and Smoke. In the early 20th century, Alma Winemiller, the daughter of a small-town Mississippi reverend, is as nervous and awkward as any character that has ever crossed the stage. What makes her so compelling is that she is strong and defiant and harbors an intense sense of hope despite being stuck in a hopeless situation.

Her eccentricities, in the form of social awkwardness and refusal to succumb to the preconceived notion of a minister's daughter, keep her from finding a reciprocated love in the man she has long admired, John Buchanan. Yet, she never gives up hope despite a family, a town and John himself suggesting there is no chance her love will garner a return of affection. This ongoing hope filled with strength from its very existence is what turns Williams' devastating tale into a tragedy with a creamy center of reaffirmed faith and expectant optimism.

The role of Alma requires a careful balance of anxiety and courage that Diane Tasca achieves beautifully. In Tasca's hands, Alma's eccentricities seem to fit her instead of label her a freak as the town and her family do. Thanks to Tasca, who is also the founder of Pear Avenue Theatre, Alma seems comfortable in her own skin, allowing us to see that the character's hope exists in a symbiotic and cyclical relationship with the hopeless situation in which she finds herself. Along with Tasca, James G. Mantell who plays Reverend Winemiller, Carolyn Compton as Mrs. Winemiller and Wendy Howard-Benham as Mrs. Buchanan are exceptional, smoothly inhabiting their characters.

However, things go wrong shortly after the start of the production. With few lines for a leading male, the role of John relies on Andrew Harkins' delivery. Unfortunately, director Jeanie Forte turns John into a condescending ass. Harkins leans into every one of his lines and adopts a playful tone with Alma, making her out to be a joke. The climactic scene where Alma receives her chance with John isn't heart-wrenching so much as painful to watch. Perhaps more disappointing is a lack of professionalism in the production. A noisy backstage and front of house and exposed masking tape on the drop curtains were nothing compared to stage manager Johanna Ruefli, who broke the fourth wall when she changed sets in denim capris and open-toed sandals. Embracing the theory that the art should be the focus, one could ignore these glitches occasionally inherent in local theater if it weren't for the fact that they quickly built upon one another and distracted from the art. While, much like Alma, the cast provides a determined force in Eccentricities, it's the eccentricities of this production that ultimately stifle hope's success.

ECCENTRICITES OF A NIGHTINGALE, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 28 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $12–$30. (650.254.1148)

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