A heavily eye-shadowed young actress is standing haplessly by the door of a laundromat. Her elder cohort has been studiously letting her do most of the talking throughout the play, but is now searching for words to bring this girl out of her funk. Like a sphinx, her lips gather together to deliver the sage advice. And then a random guy — not an actor — walks in on the scene, squeezes past the actresses and the audience to the far washing machines to pick up his whites. “Your own face in the mirror,” the elder cohort continues without missing a beat, “is better company than a man who would eat a whole fried egg in one bite.”
This encounter, witnessed during Bobby Steinbach’s production of 3rd and Oak: The Laundromat at the All-Brite Laundromat in Allston on Saturday evening, made for a strange moment, one that was not unlike being jostled awake from a dream. Up until that point, things had been going smoothly, or as smoothly as could be expected, given the circumstances. The brunt of the credit should go to the cast, which not once faltered in light of the interesting challenge they were faced with. Though there was a spot of luck that went into to it. Apart from the previously mentioned incident and another situation involving a patron who had to nudge between members of the audience blocking the change machine, the All-Brite’s intrusions were minimal (surely the prospect of laundering with twenty playgoers looking on must have served as a deterrent).
3rd and Oak, for those of you who are unaware, was originally written in the late seventies by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, the product of a Christian fundamentalist household in Louisville, Kentucky. It tells the story of two women who meet while they are cleaning their respective husband's clothes in the wee hours of the night. The younger of the two, Dee Dee, played by Brooke Haney with a nice dash of slapstick, is prone to over the top dramatics: wheeling herself around in a laundry cart, tripping all over herself on her way in the door. The elderly Alberta (Susan Bigger), who is there to wash her dead husband Herb’s load, spends much of the play reacting in stunned horror to the intimate details her young friend shares with her. In one excellent scene, Dee Dee lays out some foul language and you can practically see Alberta recoiling beneath an invisible shell.
Despite their initially polar starting points, neither Alberta nor Dee Dee are pigeonholed. The former, especially, is a wonderfully complex creation. While she very well could have been all outrage and repression, Alberta actually turns out to be the feminist in the play, telling Dee Dee that she should consider leaving her cheating husband and offering her encouragement upon learning about the job she keeps secret from him.
If you think the idea of two women bonding over laundry and loneliness sounds like something that could fast turn maudlin, you're not alone. But rest assured that Alberta and Dee Dee aren’t forced into some sort of awkward hug. Instead the pivotal moments of connection come in the form of small gestures of affection. During one such moment, Alberta corrects Dee Dee when she calls her Mrs. Johnson — “Call me Alberta.” In another, Alberta, snobbishly mum for some time about her own relationship with her husband, graciously opens up to Dee Dee and tells her a funny little tidbit about a gift she bought for him that she got embarrassingly wrong. Also, a nice touch is the open ended way things are left in the end. The two women don't plan on meeting in that spot next week like some sort of laundry club. Rather, in an elegant, believable final scene, they both go their separate ways out into the night without so much as a phone number exchange.
So we were impressed with Third and Oak. Though, it sure would have been interesting to take it in on a busy night: to see some unwitting washer snag a lead’s laundry cart or watch them contend with some noisy cell phone gabbers. Lucky for us, the production’s run has been extended into next weekend.
-- Jess McConnell and Ian Sands
Check out a performance on Thursday, June 28th, Friday June 29th, and Saturday June 30th at 8PM, and Sunday, July 1st at 3 PM at the All-Brite Laundromat, 1366 Commonwealth Ave, Boston | $5-$20 (free if you do laundry).