Review by Bart Greenberg
Between Pretty Places, now playing at The 13th Street Repertory Company, is an intriguing “musical ghost story” that details the frustrated lives of a family stranded in the parched ranch country of central California. Lyle (Philip Callen) and Diane (Ellen Parker) are a long married couple who are struggling financially and spiritually, dealing with a daughter (Julie Fitzpatrick) who committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree on the property. The daughter, Cherlynn, may be dead, but her spirit insists on remaining to continue her emotional battle with her parents and her sometimes loving, sometimes threatening relationship with her young daughter (Jemma Kosanke) who has been dumped on her grandparents by an absent father. Complicating matters, the local librarian and good time gal, Marge (Heather Lupton Rashe) is entertaining a job offer from a library in a distant town, and would love to take a souvenir along with her: Lyle.
The cast is outstanding, with each of the performers finding compassion for their flawed characters without shying away from their flaws.Parker, a veteran of Broadway and off-Broadway, plus an Emmy winner for her long run on daytime’s Guiding Light, suggests a Mother Courage suffering from a nervous breakdown over her responsibility in the death of her daughter. Callen, brings a powerful masculinity that has been hollowed out by frustration and disappointment, still in love with his wife but needing far more than she can now offer. Fitzpatrick embodies the tricky role of the strung out dead daughter, and offers the strongest female voice on the stage. Lupton Rasche finds a lot of colors in a role that could easily turn into cliche and young Kosanke neatly handles the shifting moods of an emotionally battered child.
However, there is a somewhat schizophrenic nature about the piece that is troubling. The program interestingly lists: “Play by Susan Merson” rather than book. The production does indeed feel like a straight play where songs have been dropped in. The effect is furthered by the score by Shellen Lubin (with additional music by Matthew Gandolfo) which is much stronger lyrically than melodically. The lyrics are definitely compatible with the dialogue, admirably carrying the same personalities forward. But, except for an insistent dark nursery tune and a pastiche country-western ballad, the music is rather characterless and lacks dramatic thrust. Of course, the music is not well served by the orchestral accompaniment being limited to a keyboard, no matter how admirably played by Gandolfo. These songs feel like dramatic monologues that might be better spoken than sung.
The brief running time of the show (75 minutes) makes it feel dense and tough, as dry as the world it takes place in. There is nothing pretty here, but there is courage and resolution, and it is a place worth visiting.