Welcome to North Crawford, Conn. As narrator Tom Newton (an impeccable Tim True) assures us, this is a place where things "change just about as quickly as the rules of chess." It's 1962, and the No. 1 topic of conversation in this quaint town is love. Yes, love: "Pure and complicated," says True.
And So It Goes, which opens Artists Repertory Theatre's 30th season, takes love as its subject and handles it with the utmost skill. The play's source is a somewhat unlikely one: Kurt Vonnegut, better known for dark comedy and science fiction than for schmaltz. But in adapting three short stories from the author's Welcome to the Monkey House for this new play, writer-director Aaron Posner highlights Vonnegut's gentler—yet still keenly observant—side.
As the play's guide, True hams for the audience with toothy smiles, screws of the eye and suggestive glances. He has a spectacularly malleable face, and ribs the audience in ways that are endearing rather than grating. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character—and arguably the whole production—could collapse into an embarrassing Our Town knockoff.
The trio of linked sketches, which True steers us through with ease and wit, begins with a sweet scene about a young soldier (Andy Lee-Hillstrom) who goes AWOL to chase the girl he adores. With his measured cadence and raw sincerity, Lee-Hillstrom captures both the fear and the buzz of love. Playing the subject of his affections, Kayla Lian has no choice but to seize and squeeze him, and I'm betting a good portion of the audience wanted to do the same. True interjects himself in charming ways. "They were now in an apple orchard," he says, setting a single apple atop a ladder.
The second sketch is even funnier, with Alex Hurt transforming from timid hardware store clerk to fiery lead actor in the town's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. This sketch elicits some of the production's strongest performances: Leif Norby as a riotous would-be Marlon Brando; Valerie Stevens as an amateur actress battling errant stage props; Lian as the new girl overcome by Hurt's bravado.
One might quibble that And So It Goes presents a one-dimensional representation of love: heterosexual, monogamous, traditional. True, there is no queer polyamory here. But Posner is unapologetic and sincere in his approach, and while the production doesn't explore love's darkest corners, it does tiptoe toward the shadows. In the final sketch, Sarah Lucht plays a five-times-divorced movie star and Norby a repentant husband, and True is summoned to the chaos. Once our trusty puppeteer, he seems to lose hold of the strings, which is disorienting at first. But it's also a reminder of the vagaries and snags of love—it's a "pure and complicated" thing, remember?
The overwhelming message, though, is one of hope, delivered with humor and heart by a marvelous cast. It's not the most probing production that will hit a Portland stage this season, but it is one of the most delightful.
SEE IT: And So It Goes is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Through Oct. 7. $20-$50.