There’s a specter at the American stage premiere of Terms of Endearment now playing at 59E59: it’s the play’s film predecessor starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson and Deborah Winger that swept up the 1984 Academy Awards. One has to admire Dan Gordon’s courage in writing a stage version of James L. Brooks’ winning screenplay, based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. Despite the aura of the movie hanging over nearly every scene, this production reminds us that, even if we know how it ends, a good story will still be good whether on stage or screen. And if you have never seen the film you are in for a treat.
That holds especially true if the lead is Molly Ringwald. She plays Aurora with fiery humor. This is the Shirley MacClaine role in the film, the spoiled, disappointed and reluctantly middle-aged mother of down-to-earth Emma – here played with warmth by Hannah Dunne. The play opens with Hannah as a baby and the first act is where the film’s presence is most overt. Gordon has written a breathless race through the protagonists’ early life stories. Film perhaps has the advantage as the medium lends itself to this kind of shorthand set up. On stage the baby scene feels superfluous and the rapid advance to Emma’s married life and then motherhood hurried. This impression is exacerbated by some rushed direction of the actors, the shallow stage and incidental music. In one scene, a mother and daughter hug is executed so quickly that a line about who usually stops hugging first loses its impact as they barely touch each other. All the action takes place around three sets of furniture representing different locations. The result is a certain claustrophobia as the action plays out around the tiny kitchen counter and uncomfortably narrow bed. However, the environment does support Aurora’s dismissive assessment of Emma’s home: “You may call it marriage, I call it squalor.”
The snippets of music between scenes are also very short and end abruptly, creating an uneven pace that suggests that director Michael Parva just wants to get to the real heart of the play.
That seems to arrive with Jeb Brown as Garrett Breedlove – Aurora’s Lothario neighbor and former astronaut. Jack Nicholson owned this role in the movie, and Brown seems to be paying some homage with his slurred speech. But the chemistry between him and Ringwald is real and they bring the play to life.
Terms of Endearment has rightly earned a reputation as a three handkerchief weepy, and the second act does not shy away from this. Most of the action takes place in Emma’s hospital room. It is here that human frailty on every level is laid bare. Emma’s dud of a husband, Flap Horton, a suitably geeky Denver Milord, finally shows some humanity. Aurora gives in to her motherly love and Garrett exhibits his inner chivalry. But the focus here is on Emma as she dictates her farewell letter to her children. It’s a mesmerizing moment of theatre and judging by the sniffles, there weren’t many dry eyes in the house. And for some neophytes to the story, the play is likely to provoke a search on Netflix to see it all over again.