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By Carolyn Hayes
Jeff Baron’s distinctly self-contained “Visiting Mr. Green” tells a curious story of one relationship by showing its two characters together – and only together. Yet in the production currently at Matrix Theatre Company, director Lisa Hodge Kander, Ph.D., demonstrates how even strangers’ influence on each other can extend beyond the space and time they share. On the strength of a deceptively constrained text and a compelling pair of performances, what unfolds is an intellectually absorbing journey with a thoroughly heartwarming core.
The play’s premise is spread thick across an expository first scene: Corporate climber Ross Gardiner (Patrick Hanley), after almost running over octogenarian Mr. Green (Barry V. Levine) at a Manhattan crosswalk, has been creatively sentenced to weekly home visits with the old man, to provide assistance and company as needed. But if Ross is initially nonplused at the prospect, the obligation quickly turns into a mission, as the recently widowed Mr. Green balks at and acidly rejects the implication that he needs help of any kind. Thus, partly through the court’s insistence and partly for the challenge of it, the persistently ingratiating Ross brings Kosher meals and groceries, cleans up unsightly and unsafe clutter, fetches mail, and all the while works to break through his charge’s bristly defenses.
True to the title, the show exists solely in the context of these sessions, with each scene encapsulating a single visit from beginning to end. This allows the viewer to become very familiar with the main room of Mr. Green’s apartment, for which scenic designer Christina Killmar delivers a lovingly feminine space vibrant with the absence of his beloved wife, and properties designer Carson Killmar overwhelms it with the junk of meaningless malaise. Add to this a depressingly small rotation of nubby old-man cardigans, courtesy of costumer Kirstin L. Bianchi, and the setting perfectly conveys a man locked into his former life, only now devoid of his chief happiness and reason for living.
And Levine delivers just such a character, clinging acerbically to a routine engineered for two. The actor rightly commands the world of the play, proceeding only on his terms and at his pace. Much of the first act finds Hanley in supplication, asking questions about Mr. Green’s late wife or his unshakable Jewish identity (referenced not only in visual and textual cues, but also in the Hebrew-sung music that lighting and sound designer Neil Koivu deploys throughout the show). The actors bob pleasantly together through their scenes, grounding their wryly comic disagreements in an appreciative foundation that makes the improbable accord that grows between them feel organic and earned.
But for all the friendly progress the two men initially make, their camaraderie breeds discoveries that turn the second act to discord. Here, Hanley is compellingly revealing in an impassioned confessional monologue, and Levine’s expressive face speaks volumes as his plainly established worldview is shockingly challenged. Although the two cannot seem to make their conflict fully boil over, their deep sentiment shines through, despite the sputtering tension. To say that these strangers help each other grow and contend with their own lives is technically true, but it happens in a way more fresh and unexpectedly special than that old chestnut could convey.
This “Visiting Mr. Green” is a testament to how the confinements of the theatrical medium can yield limitless fruit. Here is a play that tracks a forced, unlikely relationship and explores themes of loneliness, dependence, familial tumult, hardship, and obligation to others and self, all while telling a warmly affecting story with the capacity to move viewers to tears. For those seeking thematically sticky exploration, or the gratifying simplicity of feel-good fare, this offering has sustenance to spare.
‘Visiting Mr. Green’
Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday & 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 24. 2 hours. $15-20. 313-967-0599. http://www.matrixtheatre.org