Bittersweet, moving play reveals love late in life

Posted Online: April 30, 2014, 11:02 am
Comment on this story | Print this story | Email this story
By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
Joe DiPietro's romantic comedy, "The Last Romance" -- given an outstanding production now at Richmond Hill in Geneseo -- is plenty funny and wholly relatable. But it's also unexpectedly moving, with a bittersweet, profound sadness at its core.

Penned by the prolific author of the musicals "Memphis," "All Shook Up," "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," this four-actor play premiered in Kansas City in 2008.

While it's more of a sitcom-style setting (with a park bench and couch as its only set pieces), "The Last Romance" is a straight play with music and passion coursing through its idealistic, hopeful veins.

On an ordinary day in a routine life, the widower and opera-lover Ralph decides to take a different path on his daily walk -- one that leads him to a sudden second chance at love. Relying on a boyish, relentless charm, the confident Ralph attempts to woo the elegant but reluctant Carol, who walks her dog Peaches daily. Defying Carol's reticence and her mysterious past, and his lonely sister's jealousy, Ralph thrillingly regains a happiness that seemed lost.

In the original play, Ralph is 80 and Carol 79, but those ages are suitably lowered for the wonderful real-life husband-and-wife team who play the "Last" lovers, Tom and Stephanie Naab of Moline.

Mr. Naab, a speech and theater professor at Black Hawk College, has performed in more than 54 productions at area theaters.

While she's been married to Tom 41 years, "The Last Romance" is Ms. Naab's first chance to fulfill a "bucket list" wish to play a romantic lead opposite him on stage, she wrote in her program bio.

A former executive director at Playcrafters in Moline, Ms. Naab has been an actress, director and costume designer, and makes her impressive debut on the Richmond Hill Barn Theater stage. Her Carol is outwardly strong, but scared inside -- afraid to fly to see her grandkids, afraid to take chances, resistant to talking about her husband who had a debilitating stroke, insecure and intimidated by Ralph -- who reflects the grand, theatrical gestures of his favorite art form.

When Carol asks why opera singers are fat, Ralph responds that in real life, everything is small, but in opera's Italian arias, there are big emotions and you need big people to sing them. In real life, the feelings are big, too -- as this play touchingly shows -- but we often don't have the words and music to express them.

That's where great art comes in. While "The Last Romance" doesn't reach those rarefied, extraordinary heights, Mr. DiPietro's good heart is clearly in the right place. The play often takes a nostalgic trip back in time when a young Ralph (on the verge of his first marriage) auditioned on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; he got a callback but we learned he never got the message.

Jeff Utsinger, dean of students at Geneseo High School, deftly handles several Italian aria and song excerpts with his powerful, dramatic voice and playfully serves as mirror to Mr. Naab as he gets ready in a couple scenes. While making his RHP debut here, Mr. Utsinger was classically trained in opera and has performed in many musicals over the years.

Jackie Skiles -- an RHP and Playcrafters veteran who was past president at Richmond Hill -- boldly personifies the play's most tragic character, Ralph's mean, bitter and overprotective sister, Rose.

Rose is unafraid to speak her mind (to dogs and humans), and while occasionally tactless, Ms. Skiles reveals the undeniable love and loyalty she has for Ralph, really the only family she has left. Rose's husband left her for another woman 22 years ago, but as a good Catholic she never divorced him and she refuses to read letters from him pleading for a divorce, until a poignant one late in the play.

Ms. Skiles nails the anger and grim determination of her role, and offers some of the choicest one-liners.

The Naabs are the appealing, commanding center of the show -- directed with sensitivity and nuance by Tom Morrow, of Rock Island. It must be a pure joy for them to take this theatrical journey, as a real couple, and explore the bumps, regrets, thrills and adventures that love and marriage can bring.

We get worry over Carol's missing dog, insistent flirting by Ralph, a once-in-a-lifetime planned trip to the famed La Scala opera house for the couple, and a challenging twist to the best-laid plans. Though "The Last Romance" is basically a three-character story, we never long for a subplot with wacky neighbors.

Though aimed at the retired set, this play hits the appropriate notes for anyone who is or has been in love. It teaches you the invaluable tune of treasuring what you have and sharing the honest truth with your loved ones. If only we could never forget those words and music, and sing them with gusto.

Richmond Hill now offers free audio transcription for visually-challenged patrons during one performance of each production of the season. Audio transcription for "The Last Romance" will be available for this Friday's performance only.

If you go

What: "The Last Romance."
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Barn Theater, atop Richmond Hill Park, Geneseo.
Tickets: $10, available at 309-944-2244 or rhplayers.com.


Local events heading

  Today is Saturday, Sept. 20, the 263rd day of 2014. There are 102 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Recruits can get $500 by enlisting now. Lt Jobe has a recruiting office on Illinois Street.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Superintendent Schnitger formally inaugurated the Rock Island and Davenport Railway Line of the Holmes system by putting on four cars to start.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Wires of the defunct Union Electric Co. are being removed by city electricians.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The Bishop Hill softball team won the championship in WHB"S Mississippi Valley tournament at Douglas Park.
1964 -- 50 years ago: A boom in apartment construction has hit Rock Island, with approximately 300 units either in or near the construction stage or due for an early rezoning decision.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Members of the Bi-State Metropolitan Planning Commission are hoping to revive their push for a new $70 million four-lane bridge spanning the Mississippi River.

(More History)