March 17, 2010

Superb 'Magnetic North' captivates


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In mid-May, Portland Stage Company will host the 19th Annual Little Festival of the Unexpected. The festival is part of the theater's Studio Series and allows playwrights to test new works on an audience. Friday night's world premiere opening of William Donnelly's ''Magnetic North'' was an exciting reminder of the opportunities that can arise from such festivals.

''Magnetic North'' was the grand-prize winner of the 2006 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights and was one of the plays featured in last year's Little Festival of the Unexpected.

Donnelly, a Massachusetts-based writer, has had several of his plays produced, but ''Magnetic North'' marks the first time his work has been produced by a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) regional company. And, the play shined on Portland Stage's main stage.

The play explores the pitfalls, problems and temptations that can unravel a relationship. Leigh (Jessica Dickey) and James (Tom Butler) first met when they were 14. When they bumped into each other again at a party after college, it was as if they had never been apart.

At the opening of the play, the two are married, but things are no longer rosy. The couple recently lost a baby, and Leigh is paralyzed by grief. James, desperate to feel alive, has contacted an ex-girlfriend, Mara (Danielle Skraastad), whose e-mail address he spotted on a forwarded message. When all is said and done, will James fight to reset his internal compass toward his wife and true north, or will he be led astray by the animal magnetism he feels for his old flame?

Donnelly does a superb job infusing an entertaining dose of wit among serious themes of intimacy, uncertainty, suspicion and fidelity. The combination of poignant drama and laugh-out-loud humor lends a realistic quality to the play that many patrons will easily identify with.

Dickey delivers a convincing performance as the emotionally wrecked Leigh, and Butler is believable as her conflicted husband.

Skraastad is a powerhouse of energy and expression as the seductive Mara, a woman plagued by questions of ''what if?'' Quincy Dunn-Baker adds the perfect touch to the cast as James' bachelor co-worker Emmett. The audience burst into laughter repeatedly Friday as Dunn-Baker delivered hysterical lines that frequently left his character with the proverbial foot in his mouth.

Adding to the dynamic quality of the play is the set design and layout by Anita Stewart. A revolving stage lets the audience view three settings simultaneously: a bar, Leigh and James' home and James' workplace. The primary set can change with the turn of the stage, and the set-up allows for a powerful crossover scene near the end of the play.

''Magnetic North'' is a captivating production that's superbly executed. Portland Stage took a chance with this new production and hit the mark.

April Boyle is a free-lance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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