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Heartbeats Accelerate In 'The Batting Cage.'

By Dave Irwin

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  THE INVISIBLE Theatre's latest offering, The Batting Cage, is an homage to the joys and revelations accrued from being stuck in a Holiday Inn on an extended wake/vacation. Despite playwright Joan Ackermann's sometimes tortured prose, this dramedy turns out to be a funny and touching work, thanks mostly to actress Betsy Kruse.

Set in their motel room, The Batting Cage revolves around the relationship between two sisters who have come to St. Augustine, Florida, to scatter the ashes of a third sister, Morgan. Before her death, Morgan planned this vacation for the sisters and their mother. Wilson, played by Jennifer Fisk-Wilken, is the fraternal twin of the deceased. Sullen and silent to the point of near catatonia, Wilson, a tomboyish chemical engineer, is given to vacuous sighs and vacantly altering her electrical environment--rewiring the room with a dimmer and a clap-on switch, which she happens to carry along with her electrical tools.

Her wardrobe consists of 10 identical Eddie Bauer shirts. Her older sister, Julianna, played by Kruse, is a recent divorcée trying to realign her chi power with color therapy. Overly talkative and analytical without insight, Julianna tries unsuccessfully to engage Wilson in conversation throughout the entire first half of the play, succeeding only during a Mensa quiz. Meanwhile, the luggage containing the dead sister's ashes appears to be lost by the airlines.

After intermission, the two sisters metamorphose, switching characteristics. Julianna, laid low by debilitating sunburn, is now the silent, sullen one. Shy Wilson, freed from the tyranny of her more popular twin, has discovered herself. Her epiphany, shamelessly and verbosely described to her now immobile sister, finally comes while hitting 60 consecutive fastball pitches at a nearby batting cage, as she achieves orgasm in front of the gathered, admiring crowd.

Soon, Wilson is talkative, lively and dressing in bright colors, while Julianna retreats into the sexless Eddie Bauer cast-offs of her sister's. In the end, their mother, Rose, played by Jetti Ames, arrives with the missing suitcase, leading to a final, touching scene on family, love and death, to the accompaniment of the McGarrigle Sisters' "Heartbeats Accelerating."

The first half of The Batting Cage plays out strictly for laughs. Between Fisk-Wilken's deadpan and Kruse's slapstick, coupled with the increasingly screwball situations, there are plenty of chuckles. The complications, beyond the lost luggage with their sister's remains, include an anonymous, amorous Conquistador, the delay of Rose's arrival after being run over by a bike courier, and Troy D. McKay as a droll deep-South bell-hop with a barnacle growing in his ear. McKay carries this minor character so nicely that we begin to sympathize with the barnacle inside his head, for the hapless crustacean is trapped in as empty a space as the sisters.

The lanky Kruse looks like a stand-in for actress Shelly Long. Indeed, the excessive verbalization without awareness is highly reminiscent of Long's character as the smart but senseless Diane Chambers on the TV show Cheers. Julianna's daffiness is nicely accentuated by Kruse's physical comedy, as when she inches her sun-baked body across the bed on her stomach, or plays childlike with the kitschy tourist trinkets she has collected.

Fisk-Wilken, in the supporting role, does a nice job supporting Kruse's character, while eking out enough dramatic territory to make her own transformation believable.

After intermission the laughs are fewer and smaller, as the sisters' pain becomes apparent. Julianna explains she is so hungry for a man's touch that she actually looks forward to trips to the dentist. Here Kruse gets to stretch out and demonstrate her expressive skills in a series of vignettes illustrating Julianna's profound isolation and loneliness.

When Rose finally does arrive, and after a windy description of her mishap, the play finally turns into a bittersweet wake, making it hard not to choke back a tear or two by the final curtain.

Ackermann is her own worst enemy here, writing lengthy monologues of overwrought prose that wishes it were poetry, but which ends up merely unserviceable, flowery dialogue. While it comes to sound normal from chatty Julianna, it grates from the others. In particular, Wilson's lurid, thesaurus-enhanced description of her batting cage experience, and Rose's deeply philosophical treatise on being run down by a bicyclist, ring agonizingly false.

Directed by Deborah Dickey, The Batting Cage is a well-acted and enjoyable mix of mirth and melancholy, whose only flaw is the playwright's sometimes pretentious vocabulary.

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