Joan Vail Thorne’s The Exact Center of the Universe is ultimately a comedy, but it addresses serious issues like Southern pretense, regret, and stoicism in the face of catastrophe.
Presented locally by Threshold Repertory Company and directed by Lon Bumgarner, the play is set in a small town near New Orleans in the 1950s-60s. The action centers around Vada Love Powell and her relationship with her son, Appleton “Apple” Powell, Jr., who marries a woman without his mother’s blessing. Mary Ann, the new wife, is not up to Vada’s standards: she’s Irish-Italian, Catholic, and her parents are working-class. Apple, a middle-aged Southern gentleman who is the “center of [his mother’s] universe,” narrates the play.
Among the play’s many themes is an interesting discussion of the fear of sexuality. The play challenges patriarchal authority and advocates a healthy curiosity about the body. At one point, for instance, Vada freaks out because her grandchildren look at photographs Mary Lou has taken of naked tribal women. In a very telling scene Ada tells her husband’s ghost about how she grows jealous when aware of her son and daughter-in-law’s physical intimacy: “I think of us. We missed all that, didn’t we? … I should have asked more questions.”
Pamela Galle is stunning as the charming, obnoxious-but-loveable Vada Love Thorne (even the character’s name reflects the ambiguity of her personality) who brags about her antiques, corrects others’ grammar, and threatens with her tea cart. Galle shows convincing grief when she finds out her son is married, and bitterness when remembering how she cared for her son alone during the many years her husband was ill and bedridden.
Robin Burke does a fine job both as her son and as Mr. Powell, Vada’s dead husband who speaks to her from the shadows. Burke is especially good in Act II, when he seems at ease in his role as frustrated but loving son. In his role as narrator, he engages the audience with wit and finesse.
Christina Liedel does a nice job of teasing out the nuances of the two very different twin characters, Mary Lou and Mary Ann Mele. Mary Lou is a spunky, outspoken anthropologist; Mary Ann a timid, practical wife and mother.
The play wouldn’t be the same without Vada’s two friends, Enid Symonds, played by Annette Gill, and Marybell Baxter (Ferrara), played by Dana Martino. Their gossipy conversations often grow heated and hilarious. Gill is adorable as a Maggie Smith-like feisty lady, and Martino plays a believably sensitive Marybell. The women authentically portray the process of aging: talking over one another and worrying about Enid’s memory loss.
Set and lights, by Michael Kordek, are simple yet effective. Billowing white drapery frames the set of a seemingly middle-class room. In the center are two comfortable beige armchairs; there’s a doily on the coffee table, a faded tapestry rug on the floor, and an old 1950s telephone. Warm lights through a cotton-like paisley scrim create a charming Southern veneer. The other set is in Enid Symonds’ treehouse, where Vada and her friends, “the treehouse gang,” play canasta at a card table with folding chairs; wooden boxes are the side tables that hold the sweets so important to their gatherings. In Act II, the scenes are the same but slightly updated (a 1960s telephone, for instance). The scene changes are slightly slow, however. Costumes, by Paul McCrae, are period and class-appropriate.
Ironically, when Vada experiences a physical heart problem toward the end, she has a change of heart and begins to value others’ points of view. At the center of this tender comedy is the idea of learning to love in spite of differences.