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Third

Being a bastion of liberalism, American theatre tends to address the hypocrisy of contemporary conservatism more frequently than it looks at its own failures, so it is significant that in her final play, Third—now in production by the Denver Center Theatre Company—the late Wendy Wasserstein undertook such an examination.

Caitlin O’Connell as Professor Laurie Jameson
Caitlin O’Connell
as Professor Laurie Jameson
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Though the story contains a number of riveting scenes, overall Wasserstein's storyline is too contrived to transform us on its own; yet, Caitlin O'Connell's commitment to the central role of university English professor Laurie Jameson, with impressive supporting performances all around, make this a drama to remember.

In O'Connell's nuanced characterization, Jameson embodies the assuredness of someone whose moral universe was born during the late '60's and early '70's while opposing the false premises of the Vietnam War (Hello, Afghanistan and Iraq!), the napalming of children and slaughter of innocent civilians (a minimum of 1.2 million Iraqis have died in our current war, about six times more than Saddam killed during his reign), and the fascist agenda of the Nixon administration (the final blows to the Constitution being administered by the Bush-Cheney junta).

Billy Wheelan as Woodson Bull III (Third) and Mattie Hawkinson as Emily Imbrie
Billy Wheelan
as Woodson Bull III (Third)
and Mattie Hawkinson
as Emily Imbrie
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Along comes Woodson Bull III (Third), a student who dares to think for himself. Jameson immediately puts him in a box, partly for his seemingly aristocratic name and partly for his colloquial language and passion for classical wrestling—which rub against the grain of Jameson's Ivy League mentality and elitist approach to classic literature.

As Third, Billy Wheelan parlays a relaxed and freewheeling style into a focused and confident counterpoint to O'Connell's mature gravitas, strengthening Wasserstein's somewhat fragile dramatic line.

Caitlin O’Connell as Professor Laurie Jameson and Philip Pleasants as Jack Jameson
Caitlin O’Connell
as Professor Laurie Jameson
and Philip Pleasants
as Jack Jameson
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The most awkward scene in the play is the first shared by Jameson and her daughter Emily, who seem strangely estranged. This dissonance seems most directly attributable to Wasserstein's writing and not O'Connell's and Mattie Hawkinson's (Emily) work or Wendy Goldberg's seemless directing, because the source of the mother-daughter issues is not revealed until their second scene. This may read okay in the script, but on stage it makes the actors seem emotionally disconnected from each other, rather than at odds.

Otherwise, Hawkinson builds a strong persona, clearly her mother's daughter—both willful and compassionate. Her bar scene with Wheelan is one of the best in the play, where the acting and the script reach liftoff.

Patricia Randell as Nancy Gordon and Caitlin O’Connell as Professor Laurie Jameson
Patricia Randell as Nancy Gordon
and Caitlin O’Connell
as Professor Laurie Jameson
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The impressive character work in the play is topped off by transcendental performances by Patricia Randell, as Jameson's fellow professor, Nancy Gordon, a breast cancer victim, and Philip Pleasants, as Jameson's Alzheimer-inflicted father. Wasserstein creates tremendous emotional depth and poignancy through these supporting characters, overcoming much of her script's shortcomings in the process.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Third runs through October 20th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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