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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Savannah Option

By Ariana Mufson
It's always men who stray and women who fall, like you're off the path and we're off the cliff.
-- Emilia to Manny, regarding the hypocrisy with which men view a woman's fidelity
The  Savannah Option
Geoffrey Wade and Sally Smythe as Manny and Emilia. (Photo: Geoffrey Wade)
The Savannah Option is a cleverly titled, heady brain child of talented playwright Dakin Matthews (See his 3 listings in our just posted link to the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Nominations in the CurtainUp awards page). It revolves around two characters: Manuel Perry, a poetry professor at Savannah College and Emilia Balestreri, an Italian biology professor, best friend to Manny's wife.

Manny and Emilia dominate the stage and we witness the evolution of their attraction as well as their awareness that an affair would be morally reprehensible, especially since Manny's wife is dying of cancer. Even as Manny and Emilia engage so perfectly on a theoretical plane, one built from words and philosophies, we fear that their relationship may itself only be a theory.

Thus a complicated groundwork is laid for the dense arguments between Manny and Emilia. While they discuss and teach one another their respective philosophies, using heavy intellectual terminology, the conversations always allude to the underlying conflict of their mutual attraction. Playwright Matthews employs this tension to create unique and fresh flirtation with the help of poetry, psychology, and neo-Darwinism. In the first scene we learn that the option of rotini versus corkscrews in an Italian pasta dish, a seemingly inconsequential choice, can be related to Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, at least according to Emilia's logic.

The play delves deeply into "evolutionary psychology," which is, (as the program helpfully informs us), "a relatively new branch of the physical sciences, pertaining to how genetics controls the mechanics of human sexual attraction and desire." Everything comes full circle, as pasta ties into Darwinism, as gender links to evolution.

Every bit of dialogue is a mind twister to keep us on our mettle. The set helps ground us by creating an intensely intimate atmosphere in the small three row theater. The warm colors evoke the Savannah bayou, and the detail is immaculate: we can even pick out Virginia Woolf and biology texts on the bookshelves.

By the end of the show we have entered the academic world, one that supercedes the typical explanation of love and attraction. Eventually, Emilia declares "I believe evolution but I believe in elevation" as she rattles off numerous examples of the innately human ability to connect chemical functions to the emotional: brain into mind and sex into love. She attributes the cruelty of humans to their ability to de-elevate, for instance religion into terrorism. When she concludes that "evolution is man's sacred destiny" we are right there with her. These moments give the play weight and impact, keeping us firmly engaged.

The performances build as well. The show is double cast, owing to the actors' busy schedules. For the opening matinee, Geoffrey Wade and Sally Smythe starred as Manny and Emilia. Wade brought vigor and humanity to the sometimes unlikable Manuel Perry. Though Smythe appeared tense at first, stumbling on lines without conveying content, she more than made up for this at the end, when her vulnerability and anger were both moving and heartbreaking.

Even though director, Anne McNaughton has staged this complicated play with finesse, I wished for more moments between the dialogue to allow for more of a buildup of the physical attraction between the characters. In the second scene, Manny almost touches Emilia in passing and must pull back his hand, dealing us a weighty visual. Although we accept that Manny and Emilia use dialogue as their defense against attraction, McNaughton could enhance the dramatic tension with additional physical moments.

Playwright Dakin Matthews reconciles poetry and science, secularism and faith with jargon that in a less proficient setting would make most of us cringe at the memory of high school biology class. He serves up an esoteric and intellectually stimulating two hours that stays with us even after the play ends, the mark of any successful theater.
The Savannah Option
Playwright: Dakin Matthews
Director: Anne McNaughton
Assistant to the Director: Kamella Tate
Cast (alternating schedule): Geoffrey Wade and Sally Smythe (reviewed) or Michael Winters and Julia Fletcher
Set Design: Terry Evans
Lighting Design: Leigh Allen
Costume Coordinator: Tuesday Conner
Stage Manager/Sound Design: Andrew Matthews
Running Crew: Katie Graham
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission
2/05/05 to 3/13/05
Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
NewPlace Theatre Center (McNaughton Stage), 4900 Vineland Ave, N. Hollywood (818)-506-8462.
Tickets: $20, Friday and Saturday; $18 Thursday and Sunday. Group, senior, industry and student discounts available. Also for biology and poetry teachers. Reviewed by Ariana Mufson on Sunday, February 6, 2005.
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