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A PLAY COMES OF AGE

Local playwright Karen White-Walker is not one to take no for an answer.

Back in the mid-1980s, White-Walker took a creative writing course at the University at Buffalo, impressed everyone with her writing style -- a combination of bite and breeze -- and took the advice of a classmate: "You ought to write a play someday."

Now, eight plays later -- most of those having been seen in Lockport's Kenan Center, one somehow surfacing way-off-Broadway and perhaps still her best effort, "Before We Say Goodbye," in Houston, and two runs in the Kenan -- the reworked, "fleshed out" "Goodbye," says White-Walker, has returned, this time in the Smith Theatre.

Six aging brothers and sisters, all in their 60s and 70s, have been recruited for a bury-the-hatchet picnic to finally put to rest old resentments and misunderstandings. Nice idea, but bickering and accusing begin even before the ants arrive, with the siblings resurrecting a buffet of "Mama and Papa always liked you best" scenarios. Arguments rage, and there is little laughter in the mix at first.

Until Teddy opens a shoe box and reveals its contents: Mama's diary. What? Mama's secret thoughts as a pretty young thing with foolish dreams and even theories about S-E-X? Impossible, improbable -- but tantalizing.

So, while Teddy reads the faded jottings, the siblings imagine their parents as teenagers. Mama has a final plea about loving one another, and the six pledge to rediscover each other and their roots. They spontaneously sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth," amazingly without a keg of suds in sight.

White-Walker writes knowing dialogue, seldom straying from the honest vernacular, and she can be naughty and happily irreverent, some on-target zingers even in the play's darker moments coming from the siblings. The playwright has grown.

This is the best cast White-Walker has had; each has a take-home moment. Robert Wagner, a veteran area actor, is Teddy, and that very different cadence of his serves him well. Excellent, too, are Gail Stengel, Cheri Behe, Norman Argulsky, Irma Lewis -- a bit more conversational eye contact would help here -- and an Auntie Mame-ish Karen Cassidy, outrageous and worldly as Millie.

As young Mama and Papa, Rachel Cornish and John Reynolds are fresh and vibrant, though they disappear from half of the audience at times. Poor sightlines result in much audience seat-shifting and neck-craning. Director David Munnell should fix this.

It's an entertaining evening, a giggly, often laugh-out-loud slice of life. Karen White-Walker has learned well both in and out of the classroom.

REVIEW

Before We say Goodbye

Rating: * * *

Bittersweet comedy by Karen White-walker, featuring Irma Lewis and Gail Stengel. Directed by David Munnell.

Thursday through next Sunday in the Smith Theatre, 660 Main St.

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