BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
TAMPA — It would be too simple to describe Christmas Trio as a bracing antidote to seasonal good cheer. True, the premise is downbeat: Single career woman, pushing 40, recalls the dysfunctional marriage of her father and mother, now divorced, as she takes a trip to Florida to see her mother for Christmas.
Then why is Susan Hussey's play so exhilarating? Part of the reason is a virtually flawless staging by Gorilla Theatre — including a superb cast, Bridget Bean's immaculate direction and Allen Loyd's evocative set — but mainly it is because the reality of the characters is completely recognizable to everyone who finds this time of year heavy with emotional remembrance of times past. It captures the sentiment of the season without the sentimentality.
The one truly sad aspect of Christmas Trio is that Hussey, a co-founder of Gorilla, is no longer around to enjoy it. She died at 54 of cancer in February.
Hussey's play unfolds in a series of interconnecting soliloquies by Barbara (Meg Heimstead), the bright young thing getting on in years; her mother, Edna (Karel K. Wright); and her father, Barry (Jim Wicker). Some of these speeches are set in the past, others in the present, all anchored by a Christmas tree.
Heimstead is brilliant as Barbara, both as nubile, truculent teenager and jaded veteran of the singles bar scene. With her red bangs, sallow complexion and sharp facial features, she's the very picture of a high-strung, book-smart woman, always ready with a clever quip, never really satisfied. Several of her soliloquies — like one on driving just for the sake of driving — are spellbinding.
Because this is Barbara's story, her mother and father lack their daughter's vividness, but the actors here still get them across well. Barry, as a classical-music-loving alcoholic, exudes an air of seedy self-regard in Wicker's characterization, which recalls one of Tennessee Williams' fallen Southern aristocrats.
Edna is a more elusive figure, as a waiter turned housewife and mother turned adulterer. Wright, wearing a shapeless blue dress, as if in penance for her sin, gives a subtle performance that suggests (as Barbara puts it) the "tangled web of feelings'' between mother and daughter.
I saw the premiere of Christmas Trio in 1998, and while that production had a lot going for it, the play seemed too literary and claustrophobic, and I gave it a negative review. So it was interesting, to me at least, how much more I liked it the second time around. The play is still literary. Some of the soliloquies are reminiscent of those in Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves — an inspiration for the play, Hussey once told me — and Barbara is similar to the promiscuous doomed schoolteacher in the novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner.
Now Gorilla has discovered the theatricality in Hussey's language. The speeches in Christmas Trio jump off the stage and stay with you. Bean and company have made a loving homage to their late friend and colleague with this fine revival of her tough-minded play.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.