Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day is the kind of light comedy the Wilma Theater used to struggle with. Co-founders Jiri and Blanka Zizka have excelled at dramatic productions, but have in the past struggled with comedies. With Jiri Zizka abandoning the director’s chair this season, the Wilma turned to Richard Hamburger, formerly artistic director emeritus of the Dallas Theater Center. Hamburger’s staging of Wonderful isn’t nonstop hilarity, but it is consistently engaging and sweetly amusing.
Wonderful takes place primarily in the handsome home (but Lee Savage’s functional set doesn’t exactly exude lavishness) belonging to Kevin (David Andrew Macdonald) and Paula (the terrific Kate Eastwood Norris). Despite the less-than-opulent surroundings, it’s clear that Kevin and Paula are wealthy. He’s a minor TV personality with a fondness for technological gadgets and she’s an Oscar winner. The fact that she’s had the more successful career is an obvious source of consternation to Kevin. Kevin isn’t a Neanderthal, but he is a high-testosterone guy who is far more interested in a woman’s body than her mind.
As the play begins, the couple’s relationship is on the rocks, and only Kevin is at home to greet the cleaning lady Laverne (Opal Alladin, who was magnificent in the Wilma’s early season production of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play). An Afro-Caribbean woman whose family hails from Martinique, Laverne is a single mom with another baby soon on the way. Today she is accompanied by her 9-year-old daughter Winnie (a convincing Lavita Shaurice). While Laverne cleans the residence, Winnie busies herself with her homework assignment to chronicle her “wonderful day.” Over the course of the day, the adults give Winnie plenty of material to work with for her essay.
The press release summarizes Wonderful as “a wickedly funny and bold dissection of a turbulent marriage.” In truth it is neither wicked nor bold. Thousands of plays have dissected turbulent marriages and in Wonderful Ayckbourn doesn’t offer any new insights on the subject. What makes Wonderful interesting is that we see the events from Winnie’s perspective and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that the charming child is far more mature than the adults, who spend the play’s 90 minutes engaging in all manner of infantile behavior.
Although she doesn’t say much (and when she does speak it is often in French at the behest of her mother) any production of Wonderful will fail or succeed depending primarily on the skills of the actor playing Winnie. Instead of casting a child actor to play the 9-year-old, Hamburger trusts the role to Shaurice, a recent Temple University graduate and a veteran of several productions who delivers a wonderful performance. Shaurice’s Winnie combines a childlike enthusiasm with the observation skills of an award-winning journalist. Nothing escapes her attention and though Winnie is wise beyond her years, Shaurice’s performance is so convincing that we never once feel that the performer is too old for the role.
A play in which silences often say more than words, nothing in Wonderful feels contrived or artificial. In fact, Ayckbourn’s construction seem so effortless that one can’t help but wish he was more willing to challenge himself as a playwright. Wonderful (the playwright’s 73rd play) isn’t formulaic, but it isn’t especially ambitious or challenging, either.
Through June 19. $36-$65. Wilma Theater. 265 South Broad St. 215.546.7824. wilmatheater.org