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By Rebecca Gilman
Evolving Arts Collective
Beaumont Stage, 316 W. 5th Ave.
Dec. 5-20
$20 at 604-733-3783

The little 50-seat black box Beaumont Stage at 5th and Manitoba has turned into the Vancouver theatre most likely to yield nice surprises.  Its latest offering, Rebecca Gilman’s The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, has a compelling premise and gets sharp performances from the Beaumont’s resident company, Evolving Arts Collective.  But this play turns out to be surprisingly conventional.

At first we’re in Woody Allen territory.  Dana (Lori Triolo) is an artist whose life is falling apart.  No one is buying her paintings.  Her best friend and dealer Erica (Kate Twa) and affected gallery owner Rhonda (Jenn Griffin) have both lost faith in her work.  And live-in Ray (Scott Miller) is about to leave her.  “I’m just a boyfriend,” he explains, “I’m not a mental health professional.”

Cute urban artistic neurosis takes a dark turn towards serious mental illness when Dana slits her wrists and ends up in the psych ward.  But she comes to like it there, doing art therapy with a sweet alcoholic boy (Nic Rhind) and a psycho stalker with a heart of gold (Miller).  To avoid being discharged after ten days, Dana decides to fake multiple personality disorder.  Specifically, she pretends she’s Darryl Strawberry.

Embodying the star baseball player whose psychological and substance issues got him kicked out of the sport, Dana starts to get hold of her life.  With the support of her fellow inmates she begins painting again, stands up to the resident shrinks (Twa and Griffin) who want her to go on drugs, and realizes who her true friends are.  Self-esteem triumphs.  One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest meetsOprah.

Lori Triolo plays it safe in the central role.  A white woman pretending to be a black man, she doesn’t do the controversial but brilliant Robert Downey Jr. thing from Tropic Thunder.  She just suggests a lanky masculine athleticism and a slight African-American dialect.  It’s enough to garner frustration from her doctors, laughs from the audience, and growing recognition from Dana herself of the parallels between Strawberry’s experience and her own.  Triolo handles Dana’s climactic recognition scene particularly well.

The supporting cast does good work.  Griffin stands out for her eccentric performance as gallery diva Rhonda, at one point raking her fingers through Dana’s hair while talking about the painter’s work.  You can’t tell whether she’s looking for artistic genius or lice.  Miller is also very strong as the helpful psycho, managing to be both threatening and cute, the curious dualism the whole play attempts.

Liesl Lafferty directs a tight production.  But she should ditch those acting-class affectations: having the actors play in bare feet and make funny noises during scene changes.

Jerry Wasserman