Simpatico | Muddy Waters Theatre Company

Sam Shepard, a contemporary American playwright, is considered to be the leader of the avant-garde movement in theater, and his plays can be difficult to categorize.

Set against a backdrop of thoroughbred horse racing, Simpatico tells the story of two longtime friends, Carter (Dave Steckel) and Vinnie (Jerry Russo). Carter has flown to California from Kentucky to visit Vinnie at his request, and it quickly becomes clear that that Carter holds all the power in their relationship: he pays Vinnie’s rent and sends Vinnie whatever Vinnie wants, which isn’t much. Vinnie is having girl trouble; he’s been arrested, and he asks Carter to help. But it soon comes out that Carter is paying Vinnie, not so much to help a good friend down on his luck, but to keep a secret, a setup gone awry 15 years earlier.

When Carter discovers Vinnie may have handed off some evidence of the deal to his girl, Cecelia (MaryBeth Scherr), Carter goes to see her under the guise of getting her to visit Vinnie. Cecelia tells Carter a slightly different version of the story, and Carter’s tensely composed image of a strong, successful man begins to seriously fray at the edges. The stress of living with a secret, the threat of being uncovered, and the mental anguish Carter imposes on himself grow to a fever pitch in a one short day.

At the beginning of the play, the three-level set consisted of Vinnie’s apartment on the floor of the theater, a rundown place with dirty dishes, laundry on the floor, and groceries still in the sack on the table; Cecelia’s home on the second level, with two chairs on either side of a tea table; and, on the top level, an office. Each area seemed distinct and alone when in use, with the others disappearing neatly into darkness.

Overall, the actors were strong, with Russo’s performance as Vinnie and Scherr’s Cecelia being particularly striking. Russo portrayed a convincingly duplicitous character, one who went from appearing surly but obedient, to being double-crossing and strong. Scherr was absolutely hilarious as the mercurial, possibly insane Cecelia, generating laughter through physical movement and voice without losing depth as a character. Steckel gave Carter a nervous energy that must have been exhausting. If it hadn’t been so chilly in the theater, one might have worried he’d actually cause physical damage to himself, his moods and the accompanying physical activity were so extreme. At times, it seemed as if the barely restrained quality of the character might have been better held back just a bit, when the flailing hands and dramatic movements—although perhaps accurate for a man so stressed—became distracting.

Myron Freedman turned in an interesting performance as the wronged party in Carter and Vinnie’s past—almost caricature, but not quite. His level-headedness was a good contrast to the desperation of the others. Alice Kinsella as Rosie, Carter’s wife and Vinnie’s ex, provided a good comparison to the innocent Cecelia, at first appearing to be as wide-eyed as Cecelia, but quickly showing herself to be the kind of woman who could hold her own with men like Carter and Vinnie.

Cameron Ulrich’s direction kept the play focused, even through long scenes, which bordered on too long but never crossed the line. The lighting, by Mark Wilson was simple, but illuminated the area of the stage where the action was, without allowing the unused areas to distract.

Muddy Waters Theatre Company explores the work of one playwright each season. Sam Shepard, a contemporary American playwright, is considered to be the leader of the avant-garde movement in theater, and his plays can be difficult to categorize. The play touches on moral and ethical deficiencies; as is fitting, this production of Simpatico did not lend itself to neat conclusions or easily verbalized feelings, yet touched on a familiar aspect of human nature all the same.

Muddy Waters Theatre Company’s next production is Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, directed by Milton Zoth, May 19 through May 28 at the Theatre at St. John’s (5000 Washington Pl., Central West End). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 7 p.m. the first Sun. & 2 p.m. the second Sun. Tickets are $16 adults/$13 students & seniors. Reservations can be made by calling 314-540-7831. www.muddywaterstheatre.com

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