Giving Tree’s ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ finds success in both humorous and serious moments

Six Degrees of Separation

Giving Tree Theater — through Nov. 12

Tierra Plowden and Dustin Davis in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ — photo courtesy of Giving Tree Theater

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation employs a monologue about Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, as an invocation of the play’s themes of the nature and uses of phoniness and the challenges of forging lasting, meaningful connections.

Under the direction of Rachel Korach Howell, the cast of the Giving Tree Theater’s production of the play successfully balances the script’s humor — which often asks the characters to slide toward caricature — with its more serious concerns.

At the center of the story is Paul, played by Craig Byers. Paul is a spinner of elaborate, deceptive tales and a master of drawing people in to satisfy his desires and meet his needs. Byers is appealing in the part and his bright smile serves him well. He is tackling a challenging character — he is an actor playing a man who is himself playing a part — and at times, his line delivery is too clearly a product of memorization, which undercuts the smooth, if troubled, con man persona he is portraying.

Craig Byers as Paul in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ — photo courtesy of Giving Tree Theater

Lines got away from a number of performers on opening night, with actors stepping on each other, losing the thread, and occasionally needing to pause a moment to call the next bit to mind. One hopes — and suspects — the problems can be chalked up to jitters arising from a combination of opening night and a sold-out house.

There were plenty of successful moments — some serious, others humorous. Dustin Davis compellingly delivers a moving and desperate speech after he is beguiled by Paul. Heather Akers and Greg Smith garner well-deserved laughs as a shallow and at-odds couple taken in by Paul’s deception. Byers, importantly, delivers the Holden Caulfield monologue well.

The production’s strongest performances are turned in by Leslie Charipar and Tim Budd who portray Flan and Ouisa, the couple narrating the story. Charipar shines late in the play as her character seeks to talk Paul into giving up his deception. She and Budd share the stage in the closing moments and offer up the most emotionally resonant scene in the production. It’s a bright moment delivered by two of the area’s strongest actors who work together beautifully and are well cast in these roles.

Leslie Charipar as Ouisa in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ — photo courtesy of Giving Tree Theater

Howell and company use the small but flexible Giving Tree space creatively (which is becoming a hallmark of productions there), and the director found working solutions to a variety of challenges, including the representation of a number of essential conversations that take place on the phone. Richie Akers and Charipar collaborated to provide solid costumes that invoked the play’s 1990 setting, and Akers’ set and lighting design are strong, though an important light cue was mishandled late in the play.

At the close of the 90-minute piece, the audience proffered an enthusiastic ovation, and some in the crowd rose to their feet. The partial standing ovation struck me as appropriate for a production that offers much to admire but was a little bumpy on opening night.

Six Degrees of Separation runs one more weekend at Giving Tree Theater in Marion — Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $15.

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