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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Brian Mani and Greta Wohlrabe play a couple of characters who aren't supposed to be in bed together in "Honour." (PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

Renaissance Theaterworks hits a nerve

Seat squirmers. Plays that make us uncomfortable, not because they offend but because they strike a nerve.

We don't see enough of them in Milwaukee, where theater tends to reflect the culture – nice. That alone makes Renaissance Theaterworks' trenchant production of "Honour" stand out from the crowd.

Written by Australian dramatist Joanna Murray-Smith, the play wastes no time in smartly and literately examining several deeply personal issues that vex men and women in our times.

"Honour" revolves around a triangle of a middle-aged married couple – he is a well-known veteran newspaper columnist, she was a respected poet – and a 29-year-old female writer with her first big book project. The younger woman, Claudia, interviews the newspaperman, Gus, for the book, and that sets the plot in motion.

The questions raised here are old and primal, and new and cultural. Men in long marriages and settled lives may feel bored and fear being over the hill. Ambitious young women may be willing to leverage their fresh sexuality for a boost up the professional ladder.

Modern feminism tells females they can have it all, but practical considerations often force women to make choices between career and family.

The squirm factor in "Honour" comes from watching three credible characters each compromise themselves in ways that may look painfully familiar to us.

With no warning, Gus leaves Honor, his wife, to slobber over the enticing Claudia. She flashes a smile and a thigh, coos over his worldly experience, and he moves in with her.

Claudia is sharp and capable. She got the book deal on her own, and may be able to establish herself on talent alone. But strategically taking a useful older man to bed can't hurt. Or will it?

Although she was nationally respected, Honor stopped publishing her poetry to put her husband through graduate school, raise their daughter and make a home. The decision was hers, but now well into middle age, she has lost her identity.

"Honour" is so compelling because the playwright cuts through stereotypes with penetrating dialogue and emotional truth. Perceptive observations about men, women and their relationships sometimes come at us with such quantity and speed, one is tempted to ask the actors to stop the show and repeat what they just said. Scripts should be sold in the lobby.

While our brains are bristling with this high octane stimulation, we also feel a bit embarrassed for these characters.

Older men of stature throwing their self-respect overboard for a shallow thrill with a callow girl. Younger women of promise advancing themselves via the oldest ploy in human nature.

Even the aggrieved wife makes us a little uncomfortable. Intelligent and accomplished women are expected to build and maintain their independent identity in our culture. Honor's college student daughter angrily makes that point to her.

These folks are living cliches, and yet look around you or in the mirror. Don't have to search far to see a Gus, Claudia or Honor, do you?

"Honour" would be even stronger if Gus had been written as a more likable character. Contradictions in behavior and personality are a basic part of the human condition. Ostensibly a journalist, he sounds more like a full-of-himself academic.

Renaissance's proficient cast is led by Laura Gordon's emotionally transparent portrait of the wronged woman, Honor. Acting with energy and freshness, Gordon's work is an advertisement for the advisability of occasionally getting away from familiar surroundings. She has been a member of the Milwaukee Rep's resident acting company for nearly 20 years.

Karen Estrada also impresses in the secondary role of Gus and Honor's daughter. A natural comedian, she shows us what she can do with an intensely serious role. Estrada is quite affecting as a stunned adult child furious at both of her parents.

Brian Mani (Gus) and Greta Wohlrabe (Claudia) possess the required chemistry to levitate the play, and they are authentic in their portrayal of stereotypes.

Marie Kohler directed this stirring piece of theater.


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