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Breaking away

Exploring womanhood at Portland Stage
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 11, 2009

CHEAP HEAT Dotty (Janice O'Rourke) and Zena (Patricia Buckley) in Out of Sterno. 

housewife Dotty (Janice O'Rourke) is as dwarfed as a little girl by the Alice-in-Wonderland dimensions and décor of her kitchen. With its 

OUT OF STERNO by Deborah Zoe Laufer | Directed by Casey Stangl | Produced by Portland Stage Company, in Portland | through March 22 | 207.774.0465

looming asymmetries and skewed vanishing points, the primary-colored arts-and-crafts on the walls, and the child-drawn flavor of its major appliances, this room frames Dotty as a small child in a juvenile and insular reality of her own. There's some Expressionism at work here: For the seven years of Dotty's marriage to her gas-station-attendant husband Hamel (Torsten Hillhouse) Dotty has cheerfully, lovingly obeyed his warning never to leave the apartment. But that all changes in Out of Sterno, a quirky feminist comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Casey Stangl for Portland Stage Company.

The noun of the title refers most directly not to the gelatinous pu-pu platter fuel, but to the Anywhere, USA, city to which Hamel has whisked Dotty and shut her up in their apartment. Now, however, confronted with curious circumstances — a girlie picture in Hamel's pants, a phone message from an aggressive woman, and a flower delivery that's not for her — Dotty reluctantly ventures into various locations in the vexing outside world.

There she meets Zena (pitch-perfect, love-to-hate-her Patricia Buckley), of Zena's Beauty Emporium. Zena is where the cheap heat source of the title might come into analogical play. In fitted leopardskin and turquoise, accessorized with gold-tinseled black fur and skinny heels (Chris Rumery's primo costuming), Buckley's superb, exquisitely vulgar Zena is as hard as toenail enamel and as toxic as perm solution. But she does have globs of sex appeal, of the glossiest and most martial variety. She tries to rub off on Dotty by renaming her "Peaches," outfitting her in a leopard-skin jumpsuit, and putting her to work. But en route to and from Zena's on the bus, Dotty meets other characters (all of them, plus a deliveryman and a cabbie, divertingly played by the versatile Phillip Taratula) with their own ideas about womanhood. Which of these philosophies, Dotty wonders, gets at the truth of Real Womanhood?

Despite (or perhaps because of ) the show's heavy subject matter — oppressed woman forced into self-realization — Out of Sterno is zippy, playful, savvy, and even, at times, delightfully lewd.

The production employs all sorts of whimsical child's-play stagecraft, including a little remote-controlled bus that crosses the stage to signify each of Dotty's trips to and from Zena's. Anita Stewart's set designs are full of color and sparkle, the better to highlight their novelty in the eyes of Dotty, and director Stangl keeps the pace fleet and the tone tongue-in-cheek. The cast is quick, nimble, and united in the wry, zany tenor of the show. Hillhouse's Hamel is a cartoon not of cruelty, but of dumb, unthinking amorality (a wise choice, I think), and Taratula's virtuoso cameos manage to not only avoid excess hamming, but to create thoughtful comedy.

In a similar vein, one of the play's ballsier comic moves is the fourth-wall-breaking ingenuousness of Dotty, who confides in us regularly and very directly, at one point even passing around a photo of her beloved Hamel. It's a device that could easily feel gimmicky, disingenuous, or heavy-handed, but Dotty's confidences never do fall flat, and for that I give great credit to O'Rourke's irresistible candor and to how clear Stangl steers of emotional button-pushing. As a result, when Dotty confronts the audience at her most devastated, the moment is striking and suddenly, uncomfortably affecting. It effectively implicates us as we sit there in our rows, passing judgment safely in the dark.

But even then, this is a comedy, and for all the subversive modern guffaws of Out of Sterno, it enacts the most classical process of the genre: the butting up of old and new understandings, of old and new selves, from which conflict something newly hopeful arises. Our protagonist, by the time of her final exit as a changed woman, has long been evolving — in wardrobe, physique, and character — right before our eyes. And what's perhaps most impressive about this production, beyond the scintillating entertainment of its production values, is how true, in O'Rourke's graceful hands, Dotty's transformation rings. Though her story starts in bright, girlish stylization and hyperbole, Dotty's hurts and humors always have the poignancy of a real woman's heart and head.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

Related: Meta-farce (Portland theater), A study in portraits, In the shadows, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Anita Stewart, Portland Stage Company
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