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Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) presents veteran actor Nancy Travis in a solo show, David Cale’s “Lillian” at The New Vic with five more performances through Sunday, March 13.
Travis embodies an understated British woman who tickled the audience with reflections on womanhood and the vagaries of love and living life both as expected and “off-script.” She is by turns witty, wistful, tender and practical.
She frames the story about to unfold with, “I think we know in advance everything that’s going to happen in our lives and we see that it couldn’t have happened any other way.”
ETC artistic director Jonathan Fox directs the spare current production with a simple set of five stools, three topped with large vessels filled with big, bright yellow chrysanthemums, one holding a wine glass, and one Travis sits on for several scenes.
Evocative sound and lighting by local designers Randall Robert Tico and Jared Sayeg, respectively, offer a sense of rich production value in a nearly austere set.
Aptly described as a story of romance and second chances, “Lillian” is also mistakenly billed as the story of a bookish, middle-aged woman reflecting on her life with some implication that the notable chapters are mostly behind her.
The story is shaped by chapters, with titles projected onto the scrim, including:
   Chrysanthemums
   That Jimmy Thing (7 Years Earlier)
   Brighton (5 Years Later)
   Out of Breath
   There You Go (One Year Later), and
   Chrysanthemums (Reprise).
Based on “chapter” titles and monologue, the timeline is a little confusing. If I pieced together the chronology correctly, the story spans Lillian’s life from her mid-20s to her early 40s.
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In the course of recounting her affair with a younger man from their first lovemaking to a surprise reunion and beyond, Lillian shares several endearing expressions, describing her and Jimmy’s first kiss as “the kind of kiss you could rediscover yourself in” and predicts that “someone is really going to lose her bearings looking into those eyes.”
In 1999, playwright Cale received an OBIE Award special citation for writing and starring – in plain men’s street clothes and without makeup – in “Lillian” which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1997.
The novelty and cleverness of a man (Cale) playing a woman in his own one-character play was no doubt startling and enlivening in the late ’90s. However, despite Travis’ inarguable versatility and skill, this “Lillian” features a premature sense of closure that feels a little tone-deaf more than 20 years later.
I can’t help wonder if that’s a function of a man writing about a woman’s life, or our sense that a woman in her early 40s (David, honey, she’s just getting started!) is too young to draw philosophical conclusions as if the passionate chapters of her life are behind her.
Travis recently wrapped up a nine-season run opposite Tim Allen in the FOX comedy series “Last Man Standing,” and starred opposite Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin in the Netflix series “The Kominsky Method.”
Her diverse filmography includes roles in “The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” “Three Men and a Baby,” and “So I Married an Axe Murderer.”
“Lillian” clocks in at 65 minutes with no intermission.
Remaining performances are this Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; two shows on Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Choose the Thursday, March 10 show to enjoy a post-performance Talk Back session.
Buy tickets here, or call 805-965-5400.
Judith Smith-Meyer is a local arts critic.
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