Connections are hard in “Frankie and Johnny In the Claire De Lune” at Chamber Theatre

Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning in Frankie and Johnny In the Claire De Lune

It’s probably safe to say that there is nothing as important in our lives than the making of a connection with someone else.

A good connection can be a cure for so much – loneliness, self-doubt, fear, sorrow, boredom and maybe even pimples.

Well, pimples may not fit, but the search for a connection gets a searing examination in “Frankie and Johnny In The Clair de Lune,” the Terrence McNally classic being staged under the detailed direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

This may be the most personal play to be staged in Milwaukee all season, with a biting touch that makes familiar our identification with both Frankie, a well-worn waitress in a New York diner and Johnny, the recently-hired short-order cook.

The evening begins with a dark stage full  of first-date success, we guess, for both of them. There are two people having sex, with the girl full of moans,squeals and orgasmic screams  and he full of groans and grunts and,most masculine of “Oh, my gods.”  At long, long last, the sighs of mutual sexual satisfaction and we sit in the darkness,on the edge of our seats, waiting to see who is having so damn much fun.

Whatever our expectations, the surprise comes once the lights come up. He is pale and nearly bald with a goofy smile on his face. She is dumpy and disheveled, looking somewhere between sad and miserable. Both naked, there is an element of surprise that these are two very ordinary looking middle-aged people. They look like two sides of the same well-worn and slightly scarred toy corn that you might win at your local county fair.

The post-coital glow lasts only a brief moment before we are off and running smack dab into a typical romantic comedy. He likes her, she doesn’t much care for him and” what the hell – will they ever get together?”

Well, in McNally’s play, it’s not the answer to that question that is the most interesting. The journey is fascinating and with two real pro’s, Todd Denning and Marcella Kearns, delivering bravura performances, this journey is both fun and full of depth.

Johnny is a relentless suitor, convinced after this first date that this woman is meant for him, or at least that he is meant for her and she needs to come along for the ride. He has a mouth that runs like a fly trapped in a car – flitting here and there and never landing any one place for long.

He is full of a kind of scattered intensity as he proclaims his love for everything from watching Frankie brush her hair to gazing at her body after persuading her to open her robe.

He’s a belligerent romantic in his never-pausing seduction of Frankie.

This is the only chance we have to come together, I’m convinced of it,” Johnny begs. “People are given one moment to connect. Not two, not three, one! They don’t take it, it’s gone forever.”

For her part, Frankie has no interest in anything more than this one-night stand. She’s been battered and bruised by “thousands” of men. She makes it brutally clear that this single night of “bumping bodies” is just fine with her. Anything more and she’s taking a pass.

While Johnny is a waterfall of emotion, she is the Hoover dam. Nobody, including herself, gets a chance to see the truths hidden deep inside her heart and her soul.

She is increasingly direct in her demands that Johnny go home, demands that he disobeys with aplomb. Johnny ain’t going nowhere until she gives in to his hopes and dreams.

In this day of heightened perception of sexual aggressiveness by men, it could be that this kind of forceful pressure could be seen as distasteful at best and disgusting at worst. It is the skill of these two actors and Ms. Kerr’s careful direction that keeps this story on track and above the muck.

I have seen both of them many times over their careers but this may be the finest and dignified work by both Ms. Kearns and Mr. Denning.

She is fantastically vulnerable and scarred from a journey pockmarked by failure after failure and so much disappointment that it’s become the expected result of anything she hopes for.  She has a face that can display fear and courage and joy and sorrow with nary more than a glance.

Mr. Denning is a gifted actor, especially as a comic. Here he allows his comedy chops to run free but throws in a cocky desperation that lends depth and fabric to his Johnny. While both of these characters are afraid of each other they are more scared of themselves and Mr. Denning captures that fear skillfully.

Ms. Kerr is a sophisticated director who knows that she had two wonderful actors on hand to tell a wonderful story. She made sure that the production was true to the story and didn’t bog down in the distractions that were tempting to exploit.

It’s a collaboration that proves when highly-skilled directors and actors and playwrights and designers are on hand, it’s a perfect example of a great connection.

“Frankie and Johnny In the Claire De Lune” runs through Oct. 15 and information is available at www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Production credits: Director, Mary MacDonald Kerr; Production Designer, Judy Martel; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Costume Designer, Amy Horst, Lighting Designer, Holly Blomquist; Properties Masters, Meghan Savagian & Madelyn Yee; Sound Designer Kristian Wilborg; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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