The Real Thing: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s ‘Frankie and Johnny’ Explores the Fugue of Romance

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s new production of Terrance McNally’s 1987 play features standout performances by Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning.

No, there isn’t a problem with the lights. And yes, the show has started. Listen closely: there’s heavy breathing, then moaning, and eventually a few of your fellow audience members join in with nervous giggles. As it builds to a mattress-shaking finale, you might want to break into applause. But hold off for a moment. You won’t want to be distracted from the look on the couple’s faces when the bedside lamp lights up.

The first minute and a half of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune does indeed take place in total darkness. But there is no mistaking the “business” (as theater folk call it) that occupies the two characters at the start of Terrance McNally’s acclaimed 1987 play. Turning dramatic convention on its head, McNally starts the story with a “climax,” and then lets his characters figure out the rest of the story.

Is this just a fly-by-night (off)-Broadway romance? A friendly one-night stand? Or something more serious and substantial? It doesn’t take long for us to sense the post-coital conflict at hand.

Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning.
Photo by Paul Ruffalo.

Frankie (Marcella Kearns) has been curious about Johnny (Todd Denning) for a while. They work at the same restaurant. She likes the way he chops vegetables. He has noticed her kindness toward an elderly regular customer. But now that their curiosity has sent them tumbling into bed, what’s next?

Appropriately, that “what’s next” is accompanied by a tinny version of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” playing on Frankie’s apartment boom box (the radio DJ is voiced by Jim Pickering). Before we hear the gentle, moonlit Debussy music that gives the play it’s title, we’re privy to a fugue of disparate emotions, plans and personalities playing off each other, and perhaps headed toward a resolution.

Marcella Kearns.
Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As played by Kearns, Frankie is practical and a little wary of relationships. And Johnny gives her plenty of reason to be defensive. Chatty and romantic, he dispenses with small talk and steers the conversation to soul-baring questions — not to mention his matter-of-fact recap of their sexual encounter.

Director Mary MacDonald Kerr orchestrates the give and take of the evolving relationship with a sure hand, balancing the humor and the painful self-revelations, allowing both actors to display McNally’s ample wit and charm. And in Kearns and Denning, she has two brave actors who are willing to bare all — both physically and emotionally. Even though he final moments of the play are washed in gentle moonlight (lighting by Holly Blomquist and set by Brandon Kirkham), there’s nothing gauzy about this budding romance. It’s the real, flesh-and-blood thing, with all the radiance and wrinkles of two people on the cusp of love.

Go See It: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (158 N. Broadway), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Sept. 20-Oct. 15, 2017



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.