Butterflies are Free

By - Feb 25th, 2008 02:52 pm
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Love and romance are classical theatrical themes, but few productions in the greater Milwaukee area this season have trained their focus on a single, simple love story. Now through March 9, Spiral Theatre welcomes romance back to center stage with Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free. The story of a young musician falling for an aspiring actress debuted on Broadway in 1969 and three years later was adapted for a film starring Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert. Clues in the dialogue pin the story squarely in New York at the end of the ‘60s, but Director Mark Hooker’s choices ensure that the period doesn’t overpower the story.

Don Baker (Ryan Dance) is a blind man who has just moved out of his mother’s house and into a tiny New York apartment, much against his mother’s wishes. Mrs. Baker (Sandra Stark) is determined to get him to move back in with her, but Don longs for independence – and he’s just met Jill Tanner (Ruth Arnell), the beautiful girl next door whom he seems to be falling in love with. Don and Jill’s fragile new relationship is put to the test as Mrs. Baker stops by for a surprise visit, questioning Jill’s stability and Don’s ability to remain independent.

The first half of the play lets us see Don and Jill begin to make a connection over the course of a conversation. The outside stresses come along after intermission, where things become much more complicated as more is revealed about Don and Jill. The second half doesn’t come off nearly as flawlessly, but Dance and Arnell are so good together that it hardly matters.

Ryan Dance is excellent as he plays the subtleties of blindness without exaggerating them. Don’s dialogue has a cleverly sarcastic bite that Dance’s soft-spoken delivery pleasantly offsets. Arnell, recently featured in relatively flimsy roles (“The Girl” in Sunset Playhouse’s The Seven Year Itch and similar roles in a couple of different bedroom farces), is overwhelmingly magnetic and captures her role with depth. She conveys Jill’s idiosyncrasies with a casual, lived-in charm that never feels forced. Her performance is so believable that it’s actually kind of exhilarating to watch her character fall in love. There’s a familiar sense of excitement about that particular conversation that brings two strangers together, and this pair brings that excitement to the stage with vivid precision.

The idiosyncrasies of Spiral Theatre’s space on West National Avenue contribute to the atmosphere of a New York City studio apartment. The characters frequently refer to the sounds bouncing through the paper-thin walls of the apartment, while in real-time, the sound of traffic from outside the theatre reverberates into the space. Not long into any evening performance of the show, the sound of mariachi music can be heard from a nearby restaurant. Spiral moves to Bucketworks for its next show, and it will mark the third venue of Spiral’s season — quite a hat trick for such a small theatre company. VS

Spiral Theatre’s Production of Butterflies Are Free runs through March 9. For more information, call 414-248-6481 or visit Spiral Theatre online.

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