When viewing the final production of the season by Lewiston’s Public Theatre, it’s hard not to think of “The Gin Game,” a play which had a run late last year at Portland Stage.

Both plays concern a potential late-in-life romance between a vivacious older woman and an older man who’s become somewhat of a curmudgeon. Both plays are structured around cycles of bickering and apologizing with considerable attention given to end-of-life issues. Both plays also feature an intimate waltz at the point where the romance peaks.

But those who experienced the despair underlying much of the action in “The Gin Game” will find “Southern Comforts” to be a much funnier and more upbeat experience.

Playwright Kathleen Clark, whose play “Secrets of a Soccer Mom” was featured last season at the Public Theatre, has fashioned a sweet and delightful little two-character work in “Southern Comforts.” Its story of a Tennessee widow who comes to New Jersey to visit her daughter and meets up with a local widower is drawn from Clark’s own family experiences and the play has the feel of being close to the author’s heart.

A good deal of the credit for conveying Clark’s vision in this production must be given to performers Ed Schiff and Louisa Flaningam. In Friday’s opening performance, both inhabited their roles in ways that drew the audience into caring about whether these two lonely individuals would be able to overcome their own and each other’s defenses.

Schiff’s Gus is the heavier lift. Appropriately a retired stonemason, he’s built a wall around his loneliness and tries to defend it as an inevitable final stage in his unhappy personal life (storm windows play another important metaphorical role in this play). Yet, it is apparent early on that the “soft and calm” drawl of Flaningam’s Amanda has an appeal for him that’s impossible to resist.

Perhaps the funniest of many funny moments in this entertaining play come when, bolstered by a little Scotch, Amanda finally broaches the subject of sex. Gus’ verbal and physical reactions are hilarious.

There are also some nice bits of physical comedy later on, after the couple marries and settles into domestic life.

Whereas a younger couple might argue about plans for a vacation, deciding on burial arrangements is the final hurdle this likeable twosome must clear before they and we know that their second-chance romance is unquestionably for keeps.

Cultures, genders and lifestyles may clash, but a carefully nurtured love conquers all in this fine production. Director Christopher Schario, cast and crew (with a special nod to whomever selected the perfectly attuned vocal jazz numbers played between scenes) have finished the season on a decidedly high note.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.