Some people juggle. Some people do celebrity imitations. Frannie Potts, the kooky heroine of the one-woman play “Loveland” has her own entertainment specialty. “I do facial gesturing to sound,” she explains brightly at one point in the show, a tidily wacky meditation on grief and loss. She proceeds to demonstrate with a piece called “Car Alarm.” As the familiar tones of an automobile theft-prevention system wail in the background, Frannie pendulums her tongue, rolls her eyes and head, and flexes and purses her lips — in each case keeping in sync with the din.
This tour de force of mugging is one of the funniest sequences in writer-performer Ann Randolph’s show, which has arrived at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle after reaping considerable acclaim on the West Coast. Directed by Joshua Townshend-Zellner, “Loveland” introduces us to the likably quirky Frannie — nature freak, solicitous daughter and occasional fount of offbeat sexual fantasies — and chronicles the cross-country plane trip she takes to attend a relative’s funeral.
Excitable, awkward and something of a know-it-all, Frannie is not good at judging what behavior suits a given situation. Hence her decision to perform “Car Alarm” for the easily frightened residents of a retirement home. She follows that performance up with an even less judicious encore: a chant that’s set to a repetitive harmonium note and that features the cheery refrain: “Listen to the drone. It will help you die.”
Inappropriate? You bet! And therein lies one of the insights of “Loveland,” whose zaniest moments always seem to bend inexorably toward heart-wrenching epiphany. As Randolph evokes Frannie’s social faux pas, including her confrontations with a slew of colorful acquaintances and strangers, the play seems to grapple with the fact that death itself can strike us as inappropriate — as a reality that is devastating, intolerable and a little bit outrageous.
Gesturing animatedly with her large hands as she moves around a chair at center stage (the only other significant bit of scenery is the briefly seen harmonium), Randolph throws herself fervently into Frannie’s enthusiasms and angst. On the airplane, when Frannie isn’t petulantly ringing her call button to summon the flight attendant, she’s often exclaiming ecstatically over the beauty of the American landscape she sees through her window. Glimpsing snow on California’s Mount San Jacinto, she slaps her thighs and thumps her feet on the floor repeatedly in sheer delight.
Other experiences go less well for our heroine (whose childhood home town of Loveland, Ohio, gives the play its thematically loaded name). Frannie tangles with the staff at her local Whole Foods (a massage chair is involved), and she has serious differences with an officiously cheery social worker at the Crane Lake County Manor retirement home. (Pressing her palms together serenely, Randolph gives the social worker an aptly sanctimonious squinty-eyed smile). The fact that Crane Lake — where Frannie’s mother resides — uses Mozart’s Requiem as its telephone hold music doesn’t help matters.
The testy but devoted relationship between Frannie and her curmudgeonly mother (Randolph lends the character a wisecracking drawl) is very touching, and it provides considerable emotional fuel as “Loveland” beelines toward its laugh-through-your-tears climax. That climax does feel a little confected, even predictable. And, in general, some theatergoers may feel that the show guides them a little too carefully toward a relatively narrow spectrum of response, the kind of response that might express itself in a deep, bittersweet sigh.
But, judging by the murmurs and rueful laughs that rose from the audience at a performance last weekend, “Loveland” will be hugely moving and even cathartic for other viewers. (Randolph is scheduled to lead a mini-writing workshop after each performance to “explore the transformative and healing power of expressed personal grief.”) It’s the kind of artistic pay-off that Frannie Potts, facial-gesturer extraordinaire, could only dream of.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
Written and performed by Ann Randolph. Directed by Joshua Townshend-Zellner; lighting designer, Andres Holder; dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke. With the voice of Wayne Wilderson. About 75 minutes. Tickets: $25-$40. Through April 13 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or