Great cast, direction give ‘Midvale High’ wings

Debra Wise and Gordon Clapp in “The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE – The Nora Theatre Company’s world premiere of “The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion” at the Central Square Theater came with a sense of anticipation.

Playwright Alan Brody’s award-winning drama “Operation Epsilon” was one of the better productions in recent years, winning four IRNEs and being nominated for four Norton Awards under the flag of the Nora Theatre Company, as part of the Catalyst Collaborative @MIT series.

And while “Midvale High” is a slight piece – don’t mistake slightness for a lack of depth or charm — and perhaps not in the same category as “Operation Epsilon,” Brody’s skills and the charms of the principals make it an enjoyable romp.

The Midvale High School Class of 1954 has reunited for a one-night stand in 2004 and Steven Royal’s scenic design puts some of the theater-goers onstage seated at tables gaily decorated with balloons in the school’s colors.

As someone who anticipates attending his 50th high school reunion a year from now, is it too soon to begin preparing for the awkwardness, the fact that no one looks like they used to, and the oneupsmanship as we tally up our lifetime achievements and compare them to our classmates?

Brody nails all those issues and more in his light-hearted, 75-minute piece performed without an intermission.

It was with palpable regret a family matter kept me from seeing Debra Wise’s recent critically-acclaimed turn in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody.”

Despite a series of fine performances, Wise remains one of the more underrated actresses in the Boston area, perhaps because her duties as artistic director of Underground Railway Theater keep her busy the majority of the time.

But thankfully she found the time to work for her Nora counterpart Lee Mikeska Gardner, who directs here, as Bettina Belknap, a Baltimore widow who decides to attend the reunion and – casing the situation early – purchases a long string of drink tickets.

Also wandering around is Tom Terres, the divorced owner of a Maine independent bookstore, played by the Emmy-winning and Tony-nominated actor Gordon Clapp.

He is equally uncomfortable and fidgety, wielding his Scotch like a shield as he makes his way around the room.

Brody uses flashbacks to recount the characters’ triumphs and tragedies along the way to the reunion and their fateful meeting, including Tom’s marriage gone wrong with an ex-wife who mourns that she “wasted 10 years of my life.”

Fifty years in the past, in high school, Terres admits to being somone who largely “kept his head down.” That didn’t stop others from taking note of him, including the time he was doing a report on the Industrial Revolution and a flirtatious young woman asked him if he was a Communist. She explained that because he was unpopular and kept to himself, “people think you’re a Communist and a homo.”

For many, the high school years were not always kind.

Bettina recalls the blatant sexism that threatened to stop her dream in its tracks, but only served to make her more determined to become a neurologist. There’s also a poignant scene when she learns the husband who loved her is dying of cancer, and she realizes she never loved him lthe way he loved her.

Wise and Clapp are aided and abetted by two of the Boston area’s more versatile and talented actors in Matthew Zahnzinger and Saral Elizabeth Bedard, who perform all of the supporting roles seamlessly and skillfully.

When things start to warm up between Tom and Bettina, they find they move quite well together on the dance floor, and theer’s a hilarious moment where Bettina admits making a covert check for either a pacemaker or a colostomy bag.

The dancing leads to something else — a possible future together, perhaps, that neither envisioned at the start of the evening. Part of Tom and Bettina’s charm is their vulnerability, and their openness, and the warmth between them that seems real.

Brody isn’t trying to cure cancer or even explore atomic secrets, as he did in “Epsilon.” He’s happy to let us discover a story featuring two appealing characters, and let two real pros and a talented director give it wings.

The Nora Theatre Company world premiere production of Alan Brody’s “The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion.” Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. At the Central Square Theater through July 2. centralsquaretheater.org

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Gordon Clapp in “The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

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