Can the universe begin again?

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By Doug Deuchler

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It's exciting whenever Open Door Theater mounts a dramatic production. Their latest, The Pavilion is about the strained confrontation between two former high school sweethearts at their 20th class reunion, smoothly directed by Jason Gerace.

The title refers to a beloved old wooden lakeside dance hall just outside of Pine City, a fictional small town in Minnesota. The plot focuses on the reunion of the high school's Class of 1998 being held there. As soon as the last dance is over, the aging structure is slated for demolition. Perhaps since time is the major theme here, this symbolizes the fragility of the past.

The Pavilion is a three-actor comic and poetic romantic play by Craig Wright, an award-winning television writer who wrote for such TV programs as Six Feet Under. 

Two of the three characters are Peter and Kari, a couple who were in love during their senior year. Now in their late 30s, they have not seen one another in two decades. The third role is The Narrator who launches the show and morphs into many other reunion-goers as the play moves forward. 

Rebekah Ward as Kari and Kyle A. Gibson playing Peter, are married in real life.

Peter shows up at the reunion clutching a bouquet of flowers meant for Kari, whom he has not seen since 1998. He headed off to college at 17 when Kari got pregnant. Now he's overwhelmed with the certainty that she is his one big chance for happiness. Peter's come back home, hoping for a do-over. He knows Kari's married but he is clearly intent on wooing her. He is convinced he can revive their long-ago relationship. Actor Gibson packs emotion into his low-key dialogue. He knows he has made a mess of all his relationships since Kari and is now emotionally bereft.

Ward, as Kari, is still bitter and resentful. She wants nothing to do with Peter, who is a psychologist. Kari has a job in the local bank's safety deposit vault. Initially she struggles just to give him the time of day. "For you and me to start over," Kari tells Peter, "the whole universe would have to begin again."

As the evening progresses, it's clear Peter is unhappily single while Kari is unhappily married to a dull golf pro she cannot stand. 

Though this play was first performed in 2000, well before the #Me Too movement, Kari brought to mind the justifiable anger that still burns within many women over callous treatment and negligence by insensitive or selfish men. Is it possible to erase the scars of one's past?

Hannah Toriumi does an amazing job as The Narrator. At first, she seems like she may function as the stage manager does in Our Town. But she has a lot more responsibilities and skill. She helps us keep track of time and the evening's activities and portrays a variety of other quirky comic classmates who are also at the reunion, such as a minister who is sure men are born with a limited supply of feelings just as women have a set quantity of eggs, and a turkey farmer who is now a suicide hotline worker. Toriumi can switch characters in a single breath. She creates a dozen or so folks who walk in and out of conversations.

For too long we see Kari's bitterness but not what was once lovable about her. At times the plot feels slight and the characters rather generic. But the second act intensifies as the characters' blood alcohol climbs.

The impressive set of the wooden dance hall was designed by Joanna Iwanicha. There is a wide expanse with a performance platform, plus a bank of festive balloons. The expert lighting by Charles Cooper is especially fine.

The Pavilion, a comic, poetic play about memory and regret, asks whether you can turn back the clock on love.

Playing Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m., through March 18 at Open Door Theater, 902 S. Ridgeland, Oak Park. $27; $24, seniors; $15, students. Tickets/more: 708-386-5510, opendoortheater.net/theatre

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