By Erik Nikander
Maytag Virgin accomplishes what it sets out to do and then some: it is a compelling two-hander about grief and romance that explores how the two emotions can intermingle.
Maytag Virgin by Audrey Cefaly. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Staged by Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Liberty Hall, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through February 2.
The greatest strength of Audrey Cefaly’s play Maytag Virgin may be that it knows exactly what it is. Some plays struggle to find a thematic identity or nail down a consistent tone, using shock and flash to mask their internal confusion. Cefaly’s script is not going to turn the theater world upside down, but that doesn’t seem to be her goal. Though the script’s focus is not especially broad in scope, the two characters that make up the core of the play (and the entire cast) are written and performed in such a truthful way that their blossoming love can’t help but grip you. Sometimes, well-executed simplicity is the most satisfying thing of all.
It all begins when Jack Key (David Adkins) moves in next door to Lizzy Nash (Kati Brazda) in Lenoraville, Alabama. The new neighbors hit it off right away; Lizzy bakes Jack a welcome-to-the-neighborhood pie, and he offers her an ice-cold Coke. They get to talking, and find they have more in common than they expected. They both work at the same school, for instance. And their spouses have both died. As the two chat and squabble and try their best to be good neighbors over the course of a year, a deeper bond forms between them — one that neither person is sure they have the emotional strength to reckon with.
The premise isn’t exactly complicated, and in the hands of less skilled artists this two-hander might quickly grow tiresome. Thankfully, the MRT’s Maytag Virgin never loses its vigor and spark. Kudos go to Cefaly’s witty, engaging character writing, but director Eleanor Holdridge also deserves credit for inviting us to savor it. She imbues the play with the rhythms of everyday life — Lizzy and Jack get to know each other while they are engaged in little tasks. From stringing up Christmas lights to pinning laundry on a clothesline, these chores deepen our sense of these characters as real people with ordinary, fleshed-out lives. And when this rhythm is broken, and the two put busywork aside to have a serious talk, their newfound stillness feels quietly profound.
Cefaly’s choice to focus on older characters no doubt helps add to the story’s depth. She draws on the stubborn insecurities and fears that someone Jack or Lizzy’s age would have grappled with; they have built up defenses against emotional pain. We watch as those barriers erode with the arrival of trust. Be warned: impatient theatergoers might not like this relaxed approach. But, while the show’s pacing is a bit slower than average, the unhurried storytelling, assisted by the single location and pared-down cast, ultimately pays off.
Kati Brazda gives a terrific performance, imbuing Lizzy with the personality of a brash spitfire without neglecting her moments of genuine tenderness. She’s the sort of person who feels hurt deeply — and doesn’t know what to do with that pain except hold tight to it. She’s aching to let Jack into her life, but terrified of what might happen if she does. Brazda makes the characters internal tug-of-war vividly clear while, at the same time, she demonstrates a knockout comedic sensibility. Jack is a less internally conflicted character than Lizzy — and that feels like a missed storytelling opportunity. Still, David Adkins brings him to life with a Southern charm that’s gently irresistible. His warmth and encouraging presence feels like just the thing that might help a tightly wound person like Lizzy let loose and come out of her shell.
MRT’s staging of Maytag Virgin also boasts a playful visual quality, which makes watching Lizzy and Jack’s romance bloom an even more engaging experience. Kris Stone’s scenic design (assisted by Katie Scibelli) and Karen Perlow’s lighting offer just the right fanciful touches without ever coming off as cartoonish. From the houses’ off-kilter dimensions and the detailed props work to the incorporation of candles and string lights (which pop in little spots of brilliance in the night scenes), each design choice creates an inviting and cohesive atmosphere. Another nuance that strengthens the play’s world: the actors’ Southern accents, which are resolutely authentic. There’s no dialect coach listed in the program, but the effort is much appreciated.
Maytag Virgin is not concerned with pushing the boundaries of theater; it’s content to color within the lines. But the play accomplishes what it sets out to do and then some: it is a compelling two-hander about grief and romance that explores how the two emotions intermingle. Cefaly has conjured up a pair of characters who we can’t help but enjoy getting to know. Better yet, the playwright never panders to sentimentality or shies away from emotional complexity; instead, she examines the pain and hope that sits, repressed, in every neighborhood.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.