An actor has a hard, hard job.
Lots of lines to learn, nuances to understand, characters to embody and audiences to please
But that job eases a bit when there are others on stage with you.
And that is exactly what Carley Elizabeth Preston does not have in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” now on stage at Live Theatre Workshop.
Preston has to hold the stage all by herself. Unless, of course, you count the roughly 13 very distinct characters she portrays.
Yup, it’s a hard job. But Preston brought the characters alive and told the story with a deceptive ease.
“The Search for …” was written by Jane Wagner and performed originally by her longtime partner, Lily Tomlin. That in itself would be enough to intimidate anyone — Tomlin was brilliant in the play, which centers around Trudy, a homeless woman who has “put reality on the back burner.” A bit loony, she may be saner than any of us. Trudy is the human guide for extraterrestrials in search of that intelligent life. They contact her through her umbrella hat.
Preston took us into the world through Trudy’s eyes. We meet a couple of prostitutes, an alienated teen, women struggling with their feminist sensibilities, and we learn the difference between art and a can of Campbell’s soup.
The play has all the trappings of a dated piece — it pulls a lot from 1970s and ’80s new-agey jargon and events (consciousness-raising group, anyone?). But the beauty of this piece is that its examination of human nature and heart doesn’t get old.
Preston changed characters in a flash, drawing a distinction between them, and giving each enough weight that it never felt as though she was skimming through these characters, even while we knew she was — they are written that way. What makes this even more impressive is that the play was a last-minute substitution and Preston’s rehearsal time was limited.
Sabian Trout directed with an invisible hand — the temptation must have been great to dress up the stage (it was nearly bare) or to insert props (there were none) to help tell the story. She avoided that trap, giving us a play with a purity about the staging.
Trout understood that “The Search for …” needs nothing more than a good actress who loves the characters and loves telling a story. And she got exactly that with Preston.