The conflicts that arise for talented women as they negotiate their desire for career success and what can best be described as a mating instinct are at the heart of Sarah Treem's charming comedy "A Feminine Ending" at Off the Wall Productions' Carnegie theater.
The play centers on Amanda Blue (Erika Cuenca), an accomplished oboist and aspiring composer whose career begins to stall after she becomes engaged to Jack (Andrew Wind), a self-absorbed pop vocalist on the fast track to stardom (think Bieber: Mr. Wind's costume and hair certainly invite the association).
Although Amanda is convinced that female artists need to work harder to reach the career milestones that males glide past with seeming ease, she has put her own ambitions on hold to support Jack -- even as she recognizes she's sabotaging herself out of fear of being single and unloved. Her conflict comes to a head when she returns to her small hometown to visit her mother, Kim (powerfully played by Ingrid Sonnichsen), whose own feminist consciousness has reawakened and spurred her to leave husband (Weston Blakesley) and restart her life.
While there, Amanda reunites with her high school sweetheart Billy (portrayed with terrific charm and comic timing by Shaun Cameron Hall), now a postal carrier, and, in one of the play's funniest and most poignant scenes, she entertains the fantasy of marrying Billy so that she can have a less ambitious spouse serve as her support system.
The encounter helps Amanda see that she has more choices and opportunities than she had come to believe.
The play's title refers to musical terminology. "Feminine endings," Amanda explains, are those that end on a weak beat, as opposed to "masculine endings," which end on strong beats. The play's structure follows that of a musical composition, with projected titles labeling scenes as movements. There is even the dramatic equivalent of an operatic aria, in which Ms. Sonnichsen's Kim hilariously celebrates the benefits of a post-menopausal mind, rejoicing in finally being able to "win an argument using logic."
In places the musical references feel a bit strained and inauthentic, particularly because the actors are better at telling than showing their musical genius. The otherwise perfectly cast Ms. Cuenca looks as if she's never held an oboe in her life and although Mr. Wind convincingly conveys the seductive charm of a budding star, he is not an especially gifted vocalist. Making Jack an unremarkable singer may have been a pointed choice by director Matt Morrow, and the actors' inability to produce the music that is at the center of their characters' lives is a relatively minor flaw in an otherwise solid and engaging production.
One of the central metaphors is Amanda's impression that with each choice she makes, fewer and fewer doors remain open to her. Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri makes this metaphor the central concept of his ingenious set, made up almost entirely of doors (79, at last count). Many are in places and positions doors should not be, underlining the play's implication that doors of opportunity are always there, they just sometimes get harder to perceive and locate as the demands of life intervene.
Wendy Arons is an associate professor of dramatic literature at Carnegie Mellon University, a dramaturg and blogs as The Pittsburgh Tatler.