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  • Growing old gracefully takes on new meaning in the Bickford Theatre production of Southern Comforts at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Kathleen Clark's aggressively gentle play needs all the urgency it can get, but it's in short supply when its story about one couple's twilight-years romance is performed by two actors who haven't yet seen late afternoon.

    Gus Klingman is a war-vet widower who's already branched out in life and now wants to stay rooted in the Morris County home in which he was born. Amanda Cross, up from Tennessee to visit her daughter, is restless and demanding. He's a Republican, she's a Democrat; he's shy, she's outspoken; he's a homebody who likes things spare, she's a mover-and-shaker who always wants everything around her. Of course they fall for each other.

    Though Gus and Amanda have little more in common than a love for watching TV baseball (with the sound off), their former marriages (hers happy, his not), and children (ungrateful), it's Clark's contention that they're united by a much more powerful force: the ticking clock. If either slams the door on love now, for reasons as myopic as those youngsters do, chances are it might not call again on them soon—if ever.
    As she did with her play "Secrets of a Soccer Mom," Clark trades mostly on sitcom-style situations that are dependent more on the audience's willing tolerance and the actors' charm than on the dialogue itself. When Amanda asks Gus "You know what love does to a person?" and he responds "No, what?", you know you're not in the presence of deeply incisive drama.

    It does, however, have the potential to be moving drama, as long as you believe they both are steadily inching to the front of the Grim Reaper's datebook. Though Jerry Marino fills Gus with the appropriately reluctant grizzle and growl for a man who's forgotten how not to live alone, and Michèle LaRue is delightfully pesty as the down-home Amanda with a faded-lilt manner and voice, neither looks much older than 50. That makes this creamy post-church confection hard to swallow.

    Gus's obsession with installing storm windows leads him to risk his life by crawling out onto the roof, which might be harrowing if you believe his body could fail him at any moment; Marino—stout, sturdy, and spry—is in no such danger. When the two begin whispering about marriage and sex, as though they were taboo topics for lovers of any age, Amanda's brash directness and Gus's prudish tentativeness emanate from wholly incompatible eras. And in the second act, it doesn't take long for their bickering about their burial (who will lie where, with whom, and what will be on their tombstones) to seem deflatingly premature.

    Director Eric Hafen has helped his actors find every laugh in the verities of this older odd couple. But he, too, is unconcerned with the passage of time that's so integral to the action: He's staged most scenes too leisurely to convince you that Gus and Amanda's relationship is of any immediate importance other than as the driving force of an evening designed to make seniors smile in recognition and youngsters boast that this could never happen to them.

    It could, of course, and usually does to everyone who ever falls in love. If Clark cagily aims all this at the age group most likely to choose to see a play about it, nearly anyone of any age could find something to enjoy or relate to in Southern Comforts. But this production's confusing lack of specificity makes the general message harder to see, preventing this soft-centered comedy from being any real comfort at all.

    Southern Comforts is running through December 14 at the Bickford Theatre, Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Rd., Morris Township, New Jersey. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM. Tickets: $35 general public; $30 senior citizens, and $15 students. Call (973) 971-3706 or visit bickfordtheatre.org

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