Wakefield native’s play returns to Gloucester Stage

Many critics consider The Widow’s Blind Date to be Israel Horovitz’s finest work. It has long been a favorite of mine (and not just because Horovitz set the play in his hometown of Wakefield, Massachusetts). The current revival at Gloucester Stage Company, where it premiered in 1983, has only re-enforced my opinion.

In the last 24 years, the play has been produced in Boston, New York and around the world.

Regardless of the setting, The Widow’s Blind Date is one of the most tightly constructed, riveting pieces of playwriting you’ll ever see performed in a theater. And if you’re from Wakefield, the local color is the icing on the cake that will make you alternately nod and cringe with recognition.

Internationally acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz was born in Wakefield in 1939 and grew up on Elm Street, the son of Julius and Hazel Horovitz. He attended the H.M. Warren School on Converse St., and graduated from Wakefield High School in 1956.
Warren School - Wakefield, MA
H.M. Warren School, Wakefield, Massachusetts

The Widow’s Blind Date is set in the baling press room of a wastepaper company in Wakefield. It is the scene of an awkward and ultimately tragic reunion, as three thirty-something Wakefield High School classmates delve into their mutually shared past.

Late on a Saturday afternoon in October, Wakefield townies Archie “Billy Goat” Crisp (played by Derek Milman) and George “Kermie” Ferguson (Sean Meehan) are working at filling the baling press with the stacks of newspapers piled high around the floor, preparing them to be trucked out to a recycling company.

They are swilling some beers and shooting the bull as they work, when Archie announces that he has a dinner date with another of their high school classmates, Margy Burke. Margy was a Palumbo (a Wakefield name for certain) before she married Edgar “Moose” Burke, another WHS classmate, who has since died.

Margy, it turns out, is returning to town after a long absence to visit her brother, Peter “Swede” Palumbo, who is dying in Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. Archie tells George that Margy phoned him and suggested that the two of them get together while she was in town.

The play is loaded with Wakefield references that any local will recognize, including several mentions of “the Item.”

“Where you taking the widow for supper,” Georgie asks Archie, “the Hazelwood?”

Georgie is “from over Gould Street, up near the Stoneham line.” The men discuss “the time Cootie Webber got hit by lightning…head of the Lake.” Archie and George both attended the Warren School and in the course of their banter they talk about the bandstand on the common, Santoro’s Sub Shop and “The Gulch” down on Water Street. There’s plenty of humor in this play, much of it at the expense of these two lunks.

Soon Margy arrives to pick up Archie. Margy (Laurie Naughton) went to college after high school and left Wakefield forever, unlike her classmates Archie and Georgie. She has a good job working at a college in New York, whereas Archie still works at his uncle’s wastepaper plant and Georgie is unemployed, having been laid off from his job, “on the town.” (The “those who stayed” vs. “those who left” tension is a major sub-text of the play, and one that interests Horovitz, who couldn’t wait to get out of Wakefield.)

The three classmates reminisce about their school days. “I got a history with this one,” Archie says, referring to George, “all the way back to the West Ward School.” Little Red Schoolhouse
West Ward School

The conversation starts out cordial, but gradually tensions rise as the rivalry between the men for Margy’s attentions escalates.

Eventually, Margy insists that she and Archie skip their dinner date, and they send a resentful Georgie to pick up some food “at the Chinese takeout on Route 28, near the miniature golf.”

It turns out that there’s more, much more, to these relationships than merely being high school classmates, and none of it is good.

Milman and Meehan brilliantly capture all the misplaced cockiness and bravado of Archie and Georgie, a pair of local losers who think they’ve got it all figured out. Even if you’re not from Wakefield, you’ve known guys like this.

When Margie shows up, it is clear from the first moment that in every way—looks, brains, style—she is way out of their league, even though Archie and Georgie have lusted after her “ever since the H.M. Warren School, second grade.”

At first, Margy seems friendly enough, although she claims to have no memory of going through school with George, which bothers him immensely. Before long she is getting her digs in, calmly correcting their grammar and occasionally mocking their accents. As their reunion progresses, the calm builds to a major storm of emotions, as they dance around and eventually confront their shared past.

GSC has opened up the stage area to accommodate Jenna McFarland Lord’s expansive and realistic set, complete with a real, hand-operated baling press. Robert Walsh’s tight direction keeps every movement, right down to the fight scene choreography, looking smooth and natural.

But it is the story and Horovitz’s crisp, mesmerizing dialog that stay with you long after you leave the theater. Horovitz has carefully chosen every word, and the script is so intricately structured that it produces the feel of a completely natural and spontaneous encounter unfolding between the three characters.

If you live in Wakefield and have never seen a play by Israel Horovitz, I can think of no better introduction to the work of this world-famous playwright and Wakefield native than The Widow’s Blind Date.

The Widow’s Blind Date runs through September 9, 2007 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester. For show times and tickets, go online at Gloucester Stage Company, or phone 978-281-4433.

[The Widow’s Blind Date, by Israel Horovitz. Directed by Robert Walsh. Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith. Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume Design, Becky Farmer. Lighting Design, Russ Swift. Sound Design, Nathan Leigh. Featuring Sean Meehan, Derek Milman and Laurie Naughton.]

This review originally appeared in the August 23, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item.


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