Review: ‘Frankie and Johnny’ at Rogue Theater Company

Kate Hurster and Al Espinosa explore each other in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." Rogue Theater Company photo
March 6, 2022

Call it a long night’s journey into day

By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news

Call it a long night’s journey into day.

“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” a 1987 play by Terrence McNally, begins the night Frankie and Johnny — she a waitress and he’s a short order cook in a New York City diner — return to reality after frolicking in bed. He’s eager to launch a long-term relationship, she’s cautious. But, as night brighten into day, it appears their future might likewise be promisingly sunny and bright.

“The sun is in a hurry to shine on us,” the exuberant Johnny gushes while looking out the window of Frankie’s one-room west-side Manhattan apartment.

“Frankie and Johnny” is the season’s inaugural production for the Rogue Theater Company. It opened Friday afternoon at the Grizzly Peak Winery barrel room, where 2 p.m. performances continue Thursday through Sunday. The barrels have been removed for the play’s too brief two-week run, but the play is barrels of fun.

The impressively wonderful production features the comfortable coupling of real-life husband and wife Kate Hurster and Al Espinosa as Frankie and Johnny.

Directed by Michael J. Hume, “Frankie and Johnny” shifts from being a hilarious, gut-busting, romper room comedy to a play that explores human emotions, failings and fears. Frankie and Johnny are both middle-age survivors of earlier, confidence-draining relationships. He’s explosive, spontaneous and out-of-control eager to move forward while she’s deliberate and tentative, unsure and even afraid that their pleasures might evolve beyond the bedroom.

For information about remaining performances (2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, March 10-13), visit roguetheatercompany.com or call 541-205-9190. Tickets are $30-100. If the play were a a movie, it would be rated R for language and sexual content.

The interplay is romantic, caustic, corny and ribald, ranging from cold meatloaf sandwiches to parakeets to Shakespeare to farting. But what brings the script alive are the performances of Espinosa and Hurster, performances that causes audiences forget the play is a play. It’s an extremely physical play, from Frankie’s creased facial expressions while revealing aspects of her past to Espinosa’s incredibly physical leaps and bounds, his lusty romanticism — “I’m tired of looking. Everything I want is in this room” —  to his studied restraint when, after insisting they have children and Frankie cries that she can’t, he exclaims, “We’ll adopt.”

The “Clair de Lune” that’s part of the play’s title comes into play, literally, when Johnny calls the radio station playing background music to request it play the most beautiful music ever written, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Classical pianist Joel Wizansky, who throughout the play provides mood-setting melodies, shifts to “Claire de Lune,” which appropriately translates as “moonlight,” as the couple gaze at the night’s claire de lune. As Frankie watches, she cautiously admits, “I’ve always been suspicious of what moonlight does to people.”

Hurster and Espinosa are the on-view actors who make “Frankie and Johnny” vibrant and alive, but the play is a true team performance that includes Wizansky, Hume, set designer Richard Hay, light designer Chris Sackett, costume consultant Claudia Everett, literary manager Stephany Smith-Pearson, and Jessica Sage, the Rogue Theater’s artistic director. It’s no coincidence that Espinosa and Hurster are decade-long performers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and that Hume has been featured in OSF productions for even longer and has previously directed productions for OSF, the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and others.

The only disappointing aspect of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is its too-short run. It’s a play that deserves to be seen by larger audiences.

Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net.

A related story on the Rogue Theater Company appears here.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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