CUMBERLAND — Cumberland Theatre seems to take on some of the meatiest and provocative productions in our theater world, and Patrick Marber's award-winning "Closer" is no exception.

Making her directorial debut in Cumberland is the extraordinary and talented Nicole Halmos, and she has the opportunity to direct one of the most produced plays in the world. Four actors. Twelve intense scenes. Love. Rivalry. Seduction. Betrayal. Nicole pulls the best out of these actors — the pain, the sorrow, the sadness, the selfishness and loneliness. You will see it for yourself.

Having the privilege of attending the final dress rehearsal of this thought-provoking drama, I found myself drawn in to the world of four characters who got caught up into a web of lies, truth, suffering, lust and love ... and none the happier for it.

These four lives intertwine over the course of about four years, starting with a chance encounter between Dan, played by Rob McDermott, and Alice, played by Savannah Humbertson. Dan is an obituary writer ("the Siberia of journalism," according to Dan) who meets Alice, a stripper by trade, after a small accident in the street, and then after 18 months, they become a couple.

Dan has now written a novel inspired by Alice, and while posing for his head shot for his jacket cover, he meets Anna, played by Kimberli Rowley. Despite their mutual attraction, Anna rejects his advances. Then we meet Larry, a dermatologist played by Nathaniel Kent, and he soon meets Anna.

This sets up a series of pass-the-lover scenes, but each struggles to find intimacy, yet just cannot seem to get closer.

The set was designed by Tim Bambara, and it was intentionally very plain compared to the elaborate set of Cumberland Theatre's recent production of "Noises Off." But, I found it quite intriguing in its simplicity.

As a patron in the theater, I was not distracted by the set and the scenery. My focus at all times was on each actor's character and the delivery of their lines. My two hours were spent learning all about Dan, Alice, Anna and Larry — watching them, not as people I know outside of the theater, but as real people on the stage. I was mesmerized by the character study, and it was evident that these actors know how to take on a role and become that character.

The set, though, was like an actor itself — there on stage, with its shadows and its unobstructive stance — lending merely a background for intense interaction of these characters.

In watching all of these relationships come and go, and change back and forth, I felt myself feeling so many different emotions. At first, the situations in the scenes were funny and fresh, with characters getting to know one another. And, since I had never seen "Closer" on stage or even the movie starring Julia Roberts, I didn't know what to expect.

This one loves that one, while that one is involved with another — the play was raw, sad — giving the audience the chance to draw its own conclusions about relationships. Sad — seeing the failures of relationships that can happen to many of us. Sad — seeing the suffering in those failures. Sad — seeing the hurt we can cause others due to our own selfishness.

There was no one star in this ensemble production. This was Savannah's first starring role, and she nailed it. She was mysterious and gutsy, yet so dependent on love and affection. I felt the way she closed herself off after being hurt and abandoned, and she was ice cold in her stripper life. Savannah — you mastered your role. Bravo.

The scene right before intermission — an impressive confrontation of betrayals. The scene left me speechless, and you could hear dead silence as the lights dimmed. So much was close to home — hit me between the eyes.

As for Rob and Nathaniel, I had never had the pleasure of seeing them on the stage before. I found Nathaniel's portrayal of Dr. Larry spot on. He was perfectly cast, and Nicole had to know his acting chops were going to bring such diversity to the role. He was charismatic — someone I would like to meet, even though a little dysfunctional. And that working class English accent — perfection! Nathaniel — when your character was screaming at Anna, she nearly jumped out of her skin at the first raise in your voice. It was as real as life. Kudos.

Rob carried his weight on stage, as well. He made love look needy, over-bearing, interesting, and complicated — and he just had a hard time deciding whom he loved. And Rob, I loved how you played Dan. So vulnerable, unlucky ... it spoke volumes.

I will admit I am a Kimberli Rowley fan. I know how hard she works. I know she studies, she plans ahead, she organizes her theater schedule beyond what any of us can understand, and she commands the stage as she takes on some of the most challenging roles. Not everyone can learn lines and deliver them in perfect timing and with just the right emotion. Not everyone can do show after show, all year round, and make time to bring quality theater to the Cumberland area. I have seen what Kimberli can do on stage, and this show is no different. The range of emotions that she evokes on stage brings the audience right into the lives of these four people. That, my friends, is a primo actor.

I do need to mention that "Closer" is not appropriate for younger audiences. It contains strong language and sexual situations. But, for adults who want to see parts of their own lives brought to life on stage, this is a production you should not miss.

Others involved in "Closer" are: Rhett Wolford, light and sound; Chris McCabe and Curtis Westfall, costume design; Cheyenne Hart and Whitney O'Haver, hair and makeup design.

Closer will run two consecutive weekends, Sept. 13 thru the 23, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the theatre at 301-759-4990, or www.cumberlandtheatre.com. There will also be a free post-show party with the cast and crew on Friday night, September 14.

I would say more, but "there's just not enough space." — Dan

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