Theater review: ‘Proposals’ at Flat Rock Playhouse

MEMORY LANE: Thursday Farrar, left, and Dathan B. Williams perform in Flat Rock Playhouse’s staging of the Neil Simon dramedy ‘Proposals.’ The cast includes local talent, as well, and the show is enhanced by stunning scenic design. Photo by Treadshots

Some memories are so powerful that we spend a lifetime yearning to return. Neil Simon suggests that we can find our way back as ghosts in his dramedy Proposals, onstage at Flat Rock Playhouse through Saturday, June 1.

Housekeeper Clemma Diggins (played by Thursday Farrar), narrates the summer she witnessed many years ago. At a lakeside retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, we find the Hines family. Burt (Stewart Gregory), the father, is in failing health and is anxious for a visit with his previous wife, Annie Robbins (Paige Posey). Their daughter, Josie (Katie Barton), is not happy with the arrival of her mother, whose behavior Josie finds self-centered and manipulative. To complicate matters, Josie, who recently broke off her engagement with Ken (Grayson Powell), has three lovesick guys on her trail.

Playwright Simon charmed audiences much earlier in his career with the plays The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park and the masterful film The Goodbye Girl. Proposals was intended to break away from Simon’s usual fare. Unfortunately, it was not the Broadway hit that was expected and quickly closed in 1998. With the intriguing concept of the ghost housekeeper, Simon was certainly onto something special, but the script just doesn’t delve deeply enough. We see the play as a full reflection of the white family Clemma (who is African American) worked for, rather than aspects of the challenges she faced just before the civil rights movement.

Regardless, Farrar gives a wonderful, passion-filled performance. Some of the best scenes include Farrar and Dathan B. Williams, who plays Lewis Barnett, the husband who left Clemma years ago. Together, their heartwarming storyline unfolds most convincingly.

Throughout the play, we look to understand what tore the Hines family apart. With Gregory and Posey, we’re able to feel the possibility that they could rediscover their love in some way. This is necessary to hold our attention. Posey, in particular, glows and is reminiscent of a post-golden-age Joan Crawford.

Barton is appropriately eye-catching, but her performance lacks magnetism. We simply don’t feel the strain of her life changing or her choice among the three men as strong as we should. Perhaps this is due to the characters of Ray (Allen Law) and Ken being written too similarly. Barton does share a nice believability with Posey in the end.

Like a clap of comedic thunder, Brendan Malafronte struts onto the scene as Vinnie Bavasi. He wins us over with his charm and vitality. It’s inconceivable that this character has ever been more outstandingly performed. Malafronte steals the show. Even Vinnie’s connection with Sammii (Maddie Franke), although predictable, is a match made in a Brooklyn-style heaven.

From the moment the lights come up, we feel like we’re in Simon’s version of On Golden Pond. The woodsy scenic design by Sandra Lopez is absolutely beautiful. It is one of the production’s greatest assets.

Director Lisa K. Bryant has brought together a fresh cast, including some local talent, which is revitalizing. Proposals is cute, and, most importantly, Bryant has a great sense of what it means to be haunted by our past. That’s what Simon was striving for.

WHAT: Proposals
WHERE: Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock, flatrockplayhouse.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 1. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $18.25-$57.50

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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