Holland delivers her lines with the force and precision of an artillery piece. It's the kind of brilliant performance that makes everyone better. Her timing is so astonishing that you can sense the cast staying alert just to keep up. And her grand double-takes and ramrod-straight posture eliminate any remaining doubt about Vada's imposing personality.
As Appleton, David Bridgewater is the engaging center of Vada's world. He plays the role with an accomplished mixture of provincial gentility and bemused self-awareness. The part has its complications because Appleton periodically addresses the audience with some wry narration that contains a lot of pointless exposition. And Bridgewater ably performs one of the more taxing duties an actor can assume: remaining onstage for long stretches of time without speaking.
In the final scene of the first act, a tree house is rolled into the middle of Phil Male's economical but efficient set. Vada joins her two friends Enid (Ales Row) and MaryBell (Jolene Carroll) to eat sweets and play their weekly game of canasta. Much of the comedy comes from the interplay between these three seniors.
Truthfully, nothing very suspenseful happens. There are no dark gothic secrets and no one changes significantly. Long before the play begins, Appleton has figured out a strategy for appeasing his mother whenever he wants something. Sure, Mary Ann tangles with Vada ("I never interfere, I intervene"), but the fireworks are always presented sweetly with little danger of escalation. Faced with the horrors of the permissive 1960s, Vada bends but never quite breaks.
All of that said, this show, directed by Jack Welsh, is a real charmer. The jokes are razor-edge funny, and the playwright ladles out just enough poignancy to make us care about these characters without the result becoming sugary or maudlin. The dreams in which Vada speaks to her deceased husband (also played by Bridgewater) are especially touching. We see that Holland's breathtaking range extends far beyond the rat-a-tat-tat line deliveries.
The costumes deserve a special mention. Emily Mason clearly had fun designing clothes using the fabrics of the '50s and '60s. They perfectly demonstrate the presumed tastes of the characters without calling too much attention to themselves.
And what exactly is located at the center of the universe? After watching this play (and ignoring centuries of astronomical discovery), you might plausibly decide that it has a confectionary nature of some kind. So help yourself before it's all gone. S.
"The Exact Center of the Universe" is playing at the Barksdale Theatre through May 5. Thursday through Saturday 8 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday 2:30 p.m. $24. 282-2620.