Theater review: ART Station dishes out a warm ‘Pie in the Sky’

With a nod to that wise old Alabama matriarch from the popular book and movie “Forrest Gump,” life isn’t only like a box of chocolates, where you never know what you might get. According to her Texas counterpart in the new play “Pie in the Sky,” life can be like a frozen crust, too — a lot easier to mold and deal with after you let it thaw.

The two-character one-act comedy-drama (written by the Connecticut-based Lawrence Thelen) takes place in an Abilene trailer park, and it more or less unfolds in “real time.” Mama, who’s 85 and shares a mobile home with her daughter, Dory, is up by 4 a.m. to make their favorite dessert for Dory’s 65th birthday. Over the next 80 minutes, they basically prep, mix and bake an actual apple pie on stage, removing it hot from the oven with just precious moments to spare.

ART Station artistic director David Thomas’ agreeable premiere production features local theater veteran Karen Howell (late of “Greetings, Friend …” at Georgia Ensemble) as the resigned and retiring Dory, opposite Barbara Bradshaw (an accomplished actress based in Florida) as the frank and frisky Mama.

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For a while, it seems as though two cooks in the kitchen — the modest, authentic scenic design is by Michael Hidalgo — may be one too many. As Mama “works her magic,” Dory wonders if there’s an “order” to any of it.

They humorously bicker and banter about the right way to core and slice an apple, the proper apple-to-crust ratio, the need to measure the ingredients precisely (or not), whether everything’s really better with brown sugar (even shrimp scampi), and, yes, that symbolically important step of molding a thawed 9-inch pie crust to fit the 10-inch pie pan of life.

Once it’s all assembled and put in to bake, their “idle chat” gradually turns less trivial, albeit no more “subtle” (as Mama puts it). During the last 30 minutes of the show, skeletons emerge from the family closet concerning Mama’s husband and Dory’s father, Mama’s wayward sister and Dory’s estranged daughter, and a tragic accident involving Dory’s husband and son. Mama’s dizzy spells seem to be getting worse, although the scars on Dory’s wrists have healed well enough.

Mother and daughter soon come to concur that the random or arbitrary “nature of life” can be challenging. But, as surely as Mama finally notes that “If your heart’s not in it, you won’t make a good pie,” the tender and perceptive performances of Howell and Bradshaw work wonders with the utterly familiar recipe of “Pie in the Sky,” genuinely humanizing what could have merely played out like a hokey or mawkish extended episode of “Mama’s Family.”

“The truth is what you believe it is,” Mama says. While some of the show’s ingredients might be a bit hard to swallow on their own, in the believable hands of these co-stars, it all blends together and goes down as smoothly and effortlessly as possible.

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