December 2, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Dissecting differences

‘Walter Cronkite Is Dead’

Through Dec. 19

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA.

$50-$76

703-820-9771

Nancy Robinette, left, and Sherri L. Edelen in Signature's 'Walter Cronkite is Dead.' Gay playwright Joe Calarco says his late mother inspired some of the characterizations. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature)

There’s very little left of civil discourse in today’s America and things don’t look likely to improve any time soon. So rightly observes gay writer/director Joe Calarco who is more than a bit dismayed by the nation’s rancorous stalemate.

His new comedy “Walter Cronkite is Dead” forces two very different women to get beyond first impressions, opening an entirely relatable exploration of communication and perception.

In Calarco’s entertaining two-hander, we meet Margaret (Nancy Robinette) and Patty (Sherri L. Edelen), two travelers stuck in Reagan National waiting on weather-delayed flights. Ostensibly these strangers couldn’t be more different: Margaret is the reserved, seemingly well-educated matron, and Patty is a loud, folksy, fanny pack-sporting chatterbox. Politically, religiously and temperamentally, the middle-aged widows are polar opposites, but after sharing a tiny table in a crowded airport café it becomes clear they have more than a little in common. While each are familiar with disappointment and loss, they remain survivors with a sense of humor.

“I didn’t set out to write a polemic, but rather something that the audience could enjoy,” Calarco says. “It was very important for me to create characters who listen to one another and they needed to be real people so the audience would listen too. Once you’ve heard someone’s story, it’s harder to demonize them. Too often these days, people are shouting opposite points and not listening.”

Initially Margaret and Patty were characters featured in Calarco’s larger Bush-era play titled “Holding Pattern.” When he decided to give up on the paranoia-themed work, his sister Renee Calarco (also a playwright) advised him not to abandon it entirely. Calarco agreed and wrote a two-woman comedy, developing the fictional pair with celebrated actors Robinette and Edelen in mind. Not them as people, he says, but as actors — the way they sound and move.

Earlier this year, the playwright’s mother died, but happily before falling ill she was able to attend a reading of the play near her home in upstate New York. In many ways, the work is a love letter to her, he says.

“Not so much in what the play is about,” Calarco says. “But there’s a lot of my mother in the characters. Like Patty, she liked to talk and loved a good ghost story.  My mother was an old school Kennedy Democrat like Margaret and very afraid of flying. There were times over the years when I would have liked to have gotten her on a plane so she could have come and seen the things that I was doing. So for me to get Margaret on a plane was actually an homage to my mother.”

Growing up in Rochester New York, Calarco was involved in summer stock. After graduating form Ithaca College in 1992, he moved to New York City where he realized success pretty rapidly by adapting and directing his off-Broadway hit “Shakespeare’s R & J” (an all-male contemporary take on “Romeo and Juliet”). Most recently, he directed two New York productions, “In Transit” and “Burnt Part Boys.” In October he won the Barrymore Award for his direction of last season’s “The Light in the Piazza” at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

His long and very successful relationship with Signature Theatre began more than 10 years ago and includes directing Helen Hayes Award-winning productions like “Assassins,” “Urinetown,” “Sideshow” and “Nijinsky’s Last Dance.” He also writes for Signature’s teen education program Signature in the School. This year’s world premiere play is about propaganda and the Internet.

While Calarco remains less than optimistic about the future of discourse, his theater prospects look rosy. He’s finishing up two plays. One he describes as sort of “Big Chill”-ish, not in structure, but in feel; the other is about related women and the secrets their family keeps. He says it has a gothic feel.

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