“Wonder of the World”

From left: Michele Livermore Wigton as Karla and Wendy Poole as Lois in The Theater Project's production of "Wonder of the World."

Wonder of the World
The Theater Project
Through Sun., July 26

Sometimes you get the urge to stop, hit the pause button, go back a few years, and start your life over. What if you’d married this guy instead of that one? Moved east instead of west? Said “no” instead of “yes”? Most of us respond to such “what if” questions by staring wistfully out the window. But not Cass. She gets a move on, and that’s why she’s the heroine of Wonder of the World, the latest production by The Theater Project in Brunswick.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s raucous comedy begins when Cass (Reba Short) abruptly ditches her dull, loyal dud of a husband. All you need to know about Kip (Burke Brimmer) is that he’s the kind of hubby who tries to patch up a fight by giving his wife a platter of aspic. (Nothing says “love” like a blood-red jelly mold.) Whatever they fought about last night, Cass doesn’t want to discuss it — she only wants to reboot her life, immediately.

Thus, on a bus headed for Niagara Falls, she meets Lois (Wendy Poole), who is traveling with a barrel on her lap. Lois was recently dumped by her husband for being a drunk, and views Niagara as a pretty place to end it all. Cass has a list of things to do before she dies, and “start a conversation with a stranger” is on it, so she batters the growly Lois with random chatter. “You need to learn to segue!” Lois observes. Nevertheless, she agrees to become Cass’ sidekick.

And so this twosome takes in the sights of Niagara: one reveling in the beauty of the falls, the other seeking the deadliest place to plunge over them. Cass encounters Captain Mike (Craig Ela), who helms a ferry and may be the man she ought to have married. But little does Cass know that she is being watched. Glen (Brent Askari) and Karla (Michele Livermore Wigton) are not tourists, but detectives — bumbling, newly minted detectives (not long ago, they were running a yarn store).

Complicated high jinks ensue, neatly woven into a snug pattern by the playwright. This script treats some very serious subjects with a delightfully light touch. Who would guess it was possible to laugh so hard at a play that deals with death, abandonment, alcoholism, broken marriages, wasted lives, and regret? The real wonder here is that Lindsay-Abaire generates yuks without dissing any of the characters. Even Kip, who harbors a very disturbing secret involving doll heads, is treated with respect in the end.

Short has just the sort of wide-eyed, childlike energy the role of Cass requires. “I used to make sense,” she admits, but without much sorrow; it makes her feel alive to stop making sense. Since Lois wants to stop feeling alive entirely, she makes a great foil for Cass, and Poole — rumpled, armed with a gimlet-eyed deadpan — steals many a scene without stirring from the couch.

The supporting characters are less rounded, and the actors make the most of their cartoonish antics. Askari has great fun playing a detective with ADD — he’s the anti-Monk. Heather Weafer, this production’s utility player, takes on six small roles and nails them all. (She portrays a troika of theme-restaurant waitresses in a single scene. Her costume-changing skills must be formidable.)

Director Christopher Price allows the pace to sag in the early going, but by the climax, a lot of comedic and dramatic momentum has been gathered. The audience laughs ever harder as the action grows ever more grim, yet the show doesn’t have a mean-spirited moment. That’s a nifty feat Price and his cast manage with aplomb.

They say you can’t step in the same river twice, and maybe life proves that’s true, but if you’ve seen Wonder of the World before, this production makes it an experience you can — nay, should — repeat. (But please don’t tell any first-timers the secret about the doll heads. There are some things we all need to discover for ourselves.)

— Jason Wilkins

Wonder of the World continues through Sun., July 26, at The Theater Project, 14 School St., Brunswick. Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 5 p.m. Tix: pay-what-you-can (suggested price: $18). 729-8584. theaterproject.com.