two elderly women boxingWINSTON-SALEM, NC – Opposites don’t always attract, at least not at first, and certainly not in this surprising tale of roommates run amok in an assisted living community. With shades of The Odd Couple and Golden Girls, David Lindsay-Abaire‘s Ripcord deserves a category all its own, and The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem‘s production is an edge-of-your-seat adventure, knee-slapping comedy, and deep character study.

In the case of Abby and Marilyn, their differences are in their personalities. One’s a grumpy old wump, the other is Pollyanna-cheerful; their similarities are in their situations: they live in the same room, and both are aging.

It’s refreshing to see aging depicted on the stage in this way: That is, to see old people treated like grown-ups. Too often, older characters are shown as senile or childish. Not so in this play. The acting and the writing are both nuanced, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. 

Deftly directed by Matthew Cravey, himself a very fine actor, Bernadette Harris-Williams as grumpy Abby and Maryl Wilson as cheerful Marilyn lead a cast of screwball characters. Latimer Alexander plays Scotty, their long-suffering nurse. Nick Zayas was wonderful as Benjamin, Lewis, and a horrifying Clown. Miriam Davie plays Colleen and Woman in White in the haunted house (you’ll see). Dave Dobson was hilariously goofy as Derek, the Zombie Butler, and a Masked Man.

Here’s the set-up: Abby has dispatched a long line of roommates with her cantankerous ways, but Marilyn is different; she’s got staying power. Now Abby has serious competition for her lonely sunny room overlooking a park. She can’t afford a private room, so she has to work hard to defend her treasured solitude.

Harris-Williams’ portrayal of Abby was truly fierce and formidable. While we might identify with a person who wants to spend the last years of her life in peace, reading and tending to plants, Abby’s solitude is lined with bitterness, deep hurt, and anger. Harris-Williams’ cherubic face oozed dissatisfaction. The viewer stayed curious about what she would say or do next, partly because her jabs were so perfectly timed.

Wilson’s Marilyn was energetically buoyant. In contrast to Abby, Marilyn is never angry. Right! Despite her naturally sweet nature, the quality that compels Marilyn to engage so relentlessly with Abby is her competitiveness. Her whole family is competitive, she declares. We soon see just how competitive they are.

Into this den of fractiousness, which sometimes turns downright mean, saunters the well-meaning Scotty. Played with great likeability by Latimer Alexander, Scotty cares about both roommates, but they are trying his patience. Abby, in particular, wants to make him responsible for her happiness, while Marilyn is less high maintenance. Alexander had a brilliant physical comedy moment during the show’s final scene.

Their squabbling escalates into greater and greater heights of nuttiness, until one of them proposes a way out of their impasse. If Abby wins the contest, Marilyn will find another room. If Marilyn wins, Abby will give up the bed nearest the window.

The play simmers along with moments of sadness and jollity until it finally boils over into heartbreak and hilarity. As Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law, Davie and Dobson were in tight synch. Their characters are full of mischief and innuendo, and live up to Marilyn’s promise of family competitiveness. As Lewis, her skydiving son, Zayas brimmed with glee bordering on insanity.

Most of the play takes place in the two-bed room of Abby and Marilyn, but in the most striking set piece of the play, the women go to Beelzebub’s Din, a truly disturbing Halloween attraction where Scotty is performing. The set unfolds and folds in again on itself to reveal a Zombie Butler (Dobson), a White Woman (Davie) and baby, and a maniacal Clown (Zayas). Abby is strangely drawn to the baby.

Horrific paintings by Britt Cannino (available for purchase!) depict lurid, monstrous forms, somewhat resembling people or creatures. The set folds again, and more of these wildly imaginative images appear.

Scenic design is by This Robot Dreams (aka Tab May); abetted by Shawn Hooper, lighting design; Tara Raczenski, costume designer; and agile stage management by Elizabeth J. Rief.

Marilyn’s final “practical jokes” bring the show to its shocking climax and then to another that is fabulously fun. Ripcord is full of twists and turns with a dose of unexpected realism among the high jinks.

Ripcord opened May 10, and will run May 11-12 and 16-19 at Hanesbrands Theatre, Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, 251 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. with an additional Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. on May 18. Tickets range from $14-$26 for adults, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups of 10 or more. Tickets are at the box office on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays noon-4:00 p.m., at 336-725-4001 and www.LTofWS.org.