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March 14, 2012

Theater: Skilled cast makes ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ a success

Part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays

‘Eat Your Heart Out’ 
Written by Courtney Baron. Directed by Adam Greenfield. Continues through March 31 at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. For tickets or more info, go to actorstheatre.org or call 584-1205.

“There is no right answer.”

At least that’s what beleaguered social worker Nance (Kate Eastwood Norris) says midway through an adoption-screening interview with Gabe (Mike DiSalvo) and Alice (Kate Arrington), a prosperous couple who appear to have everything — everything but the child they desperately want.

On one level, Nance’s words represent her attempt to convey a comforting sense of objective professionalism. But they might also serve as a sort of manifesto: To date, at least, Nance herself doesn’t seem to have discovered any right answers. Nor have most of the people with whom her life intersects in Courtney Baron’s probing (and amusing, and occasionally fragmented) “Eat Your Heart Out,” which runs this month at Actors Theatre as part of the Humana Festival.

Nance is at the center of this play. As the action opens, she meets Tom (Alex Moggridge) through an online dating service. And as directed by Adam Greenfield, the jittery humor of their first meeting, rife with guarded, self-conscious jokes about their circumstances, sets the audience up for a slyly comforting comedy of manners.

The blithe tone (reinforced by costume designer Connie Furr-Soloman’s excellent choices, scenic designer Tom Tutino’s sets, and Joe Cunningham’s props) continues as the other characters are introduced. Gabe and Alice have plenty of upscale polish — just enough to create some uncomfortable laughs as their deep-seated fears are uncovered.

In addition, Nance has a daughter, Evie (Sarah Grodsky), who has just been nicknamed “Fat Ass” by a cruel member of her high school class. It’s a name that’s destined to stick, but Evie and her outcast friend Colin (Jordan Brodess), a delightfully smart nerd, take it lightly and start devising a plan to turn things around — what Evie calls an “homage to teen flicks plan.”

There are plenty of laughs as the little gaps between image and reality surface. But eventually, little lies lead to big ones, and what seem like modest hopes crash down in a sequence of juxtaposed events made especially poignant by smart staging (and Kirk Bookman’s lighting).

Making that shift from laughs to tragedy, from mockery to compassion, requires pinpoint acting and enormous range, and this cast carries it off with authority. The simplicity of Brodess’ idealistic confident hipster shtick, Moggridge’s approval-seeking nervous energy, and DiSalvo’s elegant, executive aplomb finally dissolve, leaving murky, more honest — though not always happier — images behind. And as for the women, when Arrington’s brittleness cracks and Grodsky’s self-deprecating humor gives way to genuine self-loathing, the play soars.

But Nance is at the moral and narrative center of “Eat Your Heart Out,” and Norris brings a genuine everywoman appeal to the role. Calm but yearning, professional but engaged, hopeful but not too, and vulnerable when it counts, she’s the character who finally breaks through — and on the other side of confessing her guilt, discovers a different, kinder truth — and maybe even the outlines of a right answer.