Theater Review - Fairy tail

Thinking wishes it could be a movie

Estranged childhood friends Norma and Amy don’t feel quite like themselves at the beginning of Wishful Thinking by Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer.

In the wee hours one morning in Toledo, Norma (Deborah Polston) reveals to her husband Tom (Jeff Portell) that she’s sprouted a pair of wings and a fairy costume. Simultaneously, in Los Angeles, Amy (Tess Malis Kincaid) reveals to her personal assistant Dean (John Fisher) that a scaly mermaid’s tail has replaced her legs.

The women’s new, magical appendages don’t fit their old wardrobes, and neither does the play’s premise quite fit on stage. Wishful Thinking makes its world premiere at Horizon Theatre’s New South Play Festival, but the script wants to transform itself into a film — specifically, one of those yuppie wish-fulfillment comedies. It could even be one of the good ones, like Big or All of Me, in which ordinary suburbanites learn to treasure their lives thanks to magical interference. But the limitations of live theater and the script’s mundane concerns keep Wishful Thinking from taking flight.

Director Lisa Adler sets a screwball pace from the beginning. The play cuts between the different cities and the similarly shocked reactions of Amy, Norma and their men. Norma wonders how she’ll be able to do her work as a wife, mother and nurse. “I don’t want to be a fairy,” she cries. “I have to drive carpool!” Amy worries about her reputation in image-conscious Hollywood and complains that she doesn’t know how to swim.

When Dean sees a CNN report that includes footage of Norma in her wings, he hustles Amy to Toledo and the old friends reunite under the strangest possible circumstances. Shaffer hints that the women can perform magic — Norma seems to be able to heal people and appliances; Amy’s singing voice attracts men like a sea-going siren — but the plot never makes use of their mystic abilities.

Instead, the playwright emphasizes middle-class feminine concerns like the difficulties of “having it all.” Her 2001 play The Genes of Beauty Queens — the New South Play Festival’s most popular show to date — showed ordinary women measuring themselves against beauty pageant standards, and Wishful contrasts childhood aspirations with grown-up realities. Shaffer relies heavily on jokey, sitcom-style dialogue, like when Norma’s teenage daughter Kristie (Hannah Long) wonders why mermaids make such potent sexual icons, since “they can’t even close the deal.”

Disdainful Kristie and queeny, wise-cracking Dean are both cliched characters, portrayed in cliched ways. Dean’s incessant quips become so obtrusive that it’s like the production has left a television onstage with “Will & Grace” blaring in the background. Fortunately, his calm, unguarded moments of male bonding with Tom in the second act give Fisher a chance to bring a little more depth to the role.

Kincaid also contends with a broadly written role as an oft-married showbiz lawyer, but the actress frequently plays against the obvious. When she tells Tom, “Stop looking at my tail,” Kincaid delivers the line with not an angry snap but a flirtatious curl. Polston gives Norma the meek, slumped body language of someone eager to please and easily ignored, but she also captures the role’s darker emotions.

As the two women hash out their long-standing issues, Wishful Thinking’s stage magic gets replaced with the conventional complaints of domestic drama. Shaffer digs into Norma’s marital problems, Amy’s unresolved issues with her deceased mother and both of their problems with fear and commitment. The second act might as well be titled A Couple of Transmogrified White Chicks Sitting Around Talking.

Wishful Thinking builds to an image of both women on children’s swings, a pleasant enough moment that lives up to the play’s ideas about nostalgia and girlish wishes. But we’d much rather see Norma cast spells and take flight, or Amy make use of her mermaid abilities, but Wishful Thinking denies us such fun. It’s like seeing a play about superheroes who never use their superpowers. An intriguing magical concept without the resources to fulfill it renders the stage play neither fish nor fowl.