Florida Weekly Raves! “an honest and loving look at…living lives of quiet despression”

Florida Weekly Raves! “an honest and loving look at…living lives of quiet despression”

Nancy Stetson, nstetson@floridaweekly.com

Read the Review on Florida Weekly.com

Jim Starkey feels as if he’s trapped and he’s “never getting loose.”

As he puts it, life feels like “One compromise after another, just a constant slipping.”

Things have not turned out as he’d hoped and dreamed.

For Jim and his wife Sharon in “Doublewide,” each day’s a struggle, a constant disappointment. No matter what they do, a better life eludes their grasp. They’re underpaid and overworked, and their bosses don’t keep their promises. With each new financial crisis — car repairs, dental work — they get deeper in debt.

With only high school diplomas, he’s working in a factory and she’s an assistant manager at Walmart.

And then they receive The Letter. With a nearby casino doing so well, the county writes to inform them that they’re going to take their front yard in order to make another lane for the highway. That means moving their doublewide trailer further back on what little land they’ll have left.

The county promises to compensate them, but Jim’s sure it won’t be a fair price. It also means that with only a quarter acre of land to live on, he’ll never be able to fulfill his dream of building a permanent home for his family.

“Doublewide,” by Stephen Spotswood, is enjoying its world premiere at the Art- Stage Studio Theatre at the Florida Repertory Theatre. This production is the first of a Rolling World Premiere with Washington D.C.’s National New Play Network. (It will open at the Vermont Stage in Burlington in January, and then at the Williamston Theatre in Williamston, Mich., next March.)

The play was first presented as a reading at Florida Rep’s PlayLab Festival last year (and at Gulfshore Playhouse’s New Works Festival the year previous.)

With so many families struggling, it’s a timely and insightful script. Mr. Spotswood possesses a sharp ear for how people speak and how families interact. His dialogue rings true, whether it’s Jim having breakfast with mother, Jim and Sharon’s flirty bantering, or their teen daughter giving Jim a tutorial in how to communicate on the internet.

From its opening scene, with Jim (Gregg Weiner) talking to co-workers at the factory, we know we’re seeing something special. Though that first scene’s a monologue, you’d swear others are onstage with Jim as he jokes with the invisible characters.

Mr. Weiner plays Jim as an affable Everyman trying to make his way in the world. He makes it all so natural, we feel as if we’re eavesdropping on his life.

He and Rachel Burttram, who plays his wife, Sharon, have real chemistry onstage, whether they’re talking about household chores or out on a date night. There’s Ms. Burttram’s nervous energy as she’s being interviewed for a job, eager to please, trying to win them over. And she’s watchable even in scenes where she has no dialogue, such as the one where, as the main action goes on elsewhere, she’s teaching herself how to deal cards by watching a tutorial online.

Set designer Ray Recht has created an environment so real, it looks move-in ready. It’s a living room, dining room and bedroom in the doublewide, with front steps and tire planters in the front. There’s also the green of the front yard, and stone pavers. The locale and action extend past the audience, visually and aurally. The studio space is so intimate, we feel as if we’re living with the Starkeys.

Cypress Lake High School junior Isabella Cintron plays Jim and Sharon’s teen daughter, Lorelai. This is her first Florida Rep show (outside of shows she’s done with the education department,) but she acquits herself like a professional. Her Lorelai is moody, pensive, bored, distracted. She gets frustrated with her parents. She works, saving up to buy a car. She loves music and dreams of a job in the recording industry. (Wish the venue had provided a list of what she listens to throughout the show.)

She’s not doing well in school, though, so Chuck (Dillion Everett) is hired to tutor her. His motives are decidedly mixed, and Mr. Everett is great at showing his uncertainty in the situation. He’s the lone “outsider” in the play, from vastly different circumstances.

Jim’s mother, Coral (Carrie Lund), rounds out the cast: a cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed, opinionated woman who practically lives at the casino. Her financial plan is to hit it big at a slot machine, and she’s created a complicated system she feels will guarantee her success. Coral curses like a sailor and flicks her cigarette ashes with emphasis, but she also has a great love for her family.

It does seem strange Jim isn’t more resentful or conflicted about his mother spending so much money at the casino when it’s the casino’s success that’s crushing his dream. It’s explained away with a line or two that it’s her money to spend as she likes, but you’d think he’d be more upset about it, or that it would cause more problems within the family.

But even Jim himself at one point succumbs to playing the slots, demonstrating how alluring the promise of a cash jackpot can be.

The script has changed and evolved since the reading I saw two years ago; Jim is less angry and alienated, though this may be partially due to new casting and a different director. Director Maureen Heffernan mines this material for its love and humanity. It’s a more subtle, more nuanced presentation. It’s not prickly and edgy, but it doesn’t go to the other extreme either. It’s neither sentimental nor saccharine.

It’s an honest and loving look at so many in this country who are living lives of quiet desperation, who, despite all their hard work, are unable to get out of debt and unable to build a decent life for themselves.

“Doublewide” focuses on what this family does have, as well as what they don’t.

It’s an honest look at the working poor, at a family that’s struggling.

But Mr. Spotswood has not written a depressing play. There are moments of levity, wonderful scenes of humor and connection, little gems you want to treasure for their simple perfection. He does not leave us without hope.

At the heart of it all, that’s what “Doublewide” is about: the strength and support of a family’s love. And sometimes, when life tears everything away, that’s all you have to hold on to.