Story: Ralph Bellini lives with his sister Rose in a modest home in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 80-year-old retired widower deeply loved his late wife but she’s been gone now for several years.
Ralph enjoys strolling through the neighborhood, including a nearby dog park. One day he tells Rose that he is waiting for someone but won’t say who. A few minutes later an older lady approaches the park bench where Ralph is seated and he attempts to strikes up a conversation with her.
After some initial reluctance, she responds to Ralph’s queries. Her name is Carol and she is watching her pet dog Peaches romp through the dog park. Following considerable prodding by Ralph, she tells him that she lives across the park and that her life changed when her husband suffered a debilitating stroke four years earlier. From her conversation, Ralph assumes that Carol’s husband is deceased.
In the following days Ralph continues to visit the park and await Carol’s daily arrival. Slowly he gains her trust and their relationship begins to warm. When he tells Carol of his deep love for opera he is astonished when she replies that she’s never seen one. He mentions the famed La Scala opera house in Italy as a place he’s always longed to visit and also that he auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera nearly 60 years ago, with disappointing results.
As the relationship between Ralph and Carol blossoms, Rose warns Ralph of some rumors she’s heard about Carol through a friend who lives in Carol’s apartment building. Is Rose out to spoil Ralph’s chance at some fleeting happiness or instead trying to save him from an unfortunate situation?
Highlights: Director Alan Knoll elicits fine performances from his trio of players as well as accomplished opera singer Clark Sturdevant in an affecting presentation which opens the 2018 season for Insight Theatre Company.
Other Info: The Last Romance is a bittersweet story by playwright Joe DiPietro, who draws upon his own upbringing in an Italian-American New Jersey neighborhood. DiPietro’s knack for capturing family drama was also evident in another of his works, Over the River and Through the Woods, which Insight performed in 2014.
It’s a pleasing if not deeply profound story, nicely told in two acts which Knoll paces in charming fashion. In addition to the three major characters, DiPietro adds a “Young Man” who serves essentially as Ralph’s operatic alter ego, singing a number of beautiful and touching arias in the background.
Clark Sturdevant as the Young Man puts his tenor to fine use in this production, engaging the audience with selections ranging from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Falstaff to Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci among others.
Joneal Joplin delights as the well-anchored Ralph, who has lived long enough to bury numerous brothers and sisters in addition to his wife and son. As Ralph tells Carol, one just keeps moving ahead as long as possible to enjoy life’s better moments. Joplin can be impish, cranky or jovial as the scene requires and adept at all methods of shaping Ralph as a likable, decent guy.
Tommy Nolan is convincing as Carol, a woman who coyly allows Ralph to interpret her answers without clarification. Still, she portrays a proper lady who always has followed protocol but nonetheless has a heart which can be affected by a charmer such as Ralph.
Insight artistic director Maggie Ryan brings a fine New Jersey accent and determined demeanor to the role of the perpetually frowning Rose, a staunch Catholic who has endured separation from her own husband for 22 years after he left for another woman. Rose has spent her life taking care of family members at her own emotional expense.
Robin Weatherall adds some nice touches, such as barking dogs, to the sound design beyond the operatic interludes and Teresa Doggett smartly adorns the cast, with Rose in frumpy attire while Carol sports a more sophisticated look and Sturdevant dresses the part of an opera singer.
Landon Shaw’s set pleasantly sets out the dog park motif with a bench at stage center, an iron fence in the back and two staging platforms above the main stage at either side, one for a bedroom and the other for a waiting area. It’s effectively illuminated with Geordy Van Es’ lighting design. Nancy Mayo is the well-prepared accompanist. Oscar portrays the diminutive Peaches.
The Last Romance is a nicely told little tale which depicts how some people live their lives in two sections, the actual and the might-have-been, with poignant results.
Play: The Last Romance
Group: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: March 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $15-$35; contact 534-1111, 5561293 or www.metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb