Eric Chappell’s Summer End is proof that nursing homes and their inhabitants are the perfect vehicle for comedy and a little suspense too. The clever plot and witty dialogue, drawing on the identifiable quirks of the elderly, lead up to a dramatic climax that should creep in through the dark and seize you like an icy breeze. Instead, the opening night performance of Tea Tree Players’ production was stifled as the actors struggled with lines, appearing to rely on an offstage prompt, and often preempting cues, which played havoc with the comic timing and dramatic tension.
Fran Edwards, as wheelchair-bound Emily, and Chris Galipo, as not-done-living-yet May, have the mammoth task of playing the two lead roles, rarely leaving the stage. Emily is convinced her former roommate was murdered for her money and fears who the next victim might be. Perhaps May? Despite struggling with lines, Edwards brought good physical comedy, nimbly jumping out of her wheelchair to hide or steal things when a back was turned. Her regional accent was generally well maintained. However, Galipo’s blocking was largely confined to unmotivated pacing around her bed when not sneaking swigs from hidden hipflasks.
Director Brian Godfrey went for obvious laughs by playing the stereotypes, particularly with the supporting cast. In doing so, he missed the opportunity to explore each character’s potential motive for murder, attention to which could have further engaged the audience in the unraveling mystery. The prime suspect seemed to emerge too quickly. Gabby Brown as the young self-centred nurse, Paul Zechner as Emily’s frustrated son, and Merici Thompson as the stern and nasally matron all made promising entrances, but their portrayals dwindled into caricatures along with their fading accents.
A realistic box set and costumes created an authentic setting for the production. Hopefully the speed bumps of opening night are behind them and the production and performances strengthen during the season.