What’s with Minnesota? It used to be just a cold Midwestern state where Bob Dylan came from. Suddenly, now, it’s the place where you get your heart broken. The latest Great American Novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, is set in Minnesota, as is Craig Wright’s The Pavilion, the first play from Osimous Theatre, a new company co-founded by local acting fave Bob Frazer. This scintillating production, directed by Frazer, gets the company off to a great start.
Like Freedom, The Pavilion is about a profoundly rocky love affair that unfolds over multiple decades. The play takes place at a small-town 20th high school reunion, where Peter (Craig Erickson) and Kari (Dawn Petten) see each other again for the first time since Peter went off to college, leaving 17-year-old Kari pregnant and devastated. Now a psychologist in the big city, but desperately unhappy and still in love with Kari, Peter woos her, begs her to let him make up for his terrible mistake and start their lives over again together. After two decades in a dead-end job and a loveless marriage, Kari can’t forgive him—though she’s obviously still as much in love with him as he is with her.
The play is narrated in a folksy/poetic style reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—the narrator even plays similar metatheatrical tricks on the bare stage, cuing musical effects, stars, etc, and philosophizing about metaphysics and time. This seems aimed at raising the stakes of Peter & Kari’s love story, framing it as a function of The Human Condition and making it resonate with (literally) universal significance. But much of this writing is precious and the narrative intrusions annoying and distracting, though Parnelli Parnes does a charming job with them.
Parnes plays all the other characters at the reunion, men and women, with clever comic gusto, and their conversations with Peter and Kari showcase Wright’s writing skills. Among the best: a clergyman who explains to Peter his theory of finite feelings—just as women only have so many eggs, men only have so many feelings, and they get used up as we age. Also memorable are a stoner who has been screwing the wife of the chief of police and is terrified of the cuckold’s revenge, and an angry friend of Kari’s with a cheating husband, whose motto is “Never forgive!”
Petten and Erickson are entirely compelling as Kari and Peter. He’s so intensely romantic, singing her an exquisite song, “Down in the Ruined World” (beautifully performed by Erickson with acoustic guitar), hoping to convince her that reviving their love can redeem the ruined world. But she’s so bitter: “Nobody’s happy the way they thought they’d be. Bearable is the best we can hope for.”
Funny, thought provoking, and downbeat in an upbeat way, The Pavilion is a lovely start for this new company in this new year.