Theater review: Performances transcend material in Aurora comedy

LaLa Cochran and Lane Carlock, two of Atlanta’s more reliable acting talents, fly high in Aurora Theatre’s “Walter Cronkite Is Dead,” an otherwise pedestrian comedy (by Joe Calarco) about two disparate women whose paths cross in an airport lounge.

Bound for London and Moscow, respectively, the chatty Patty (Cochran) and the mannered Margaret (Carlock) are temporarily grounded and waiting out a storm. For some 90 minutes, they sit around talking, and that’s basically all there is to the play, which inevitably begins to get stuck in its own tracks.

Under the circumstances, it may be appropriate (if not intentional) that there’s a static aspect to Brian Clowdus’ Aurora production. Still, if 99 percent of a director’s job is simply casting a show properly, as the adage goes, then Clowdus has done exceedingly well for himself, indeed, and audiences can be grateful for it.

Cochran is practically without peer when it comes to roles as flashy and rambunctious as Patty, a good ol’ Southern gal who’s either “personable” or “loud,” depending on who’s telling it. The same could be said for Carlock when it comes to prim and proper types like Margaret. Arguably, her performance is even more impressive, partly because her character undergoes a greater transition in the play, and partly because the actress rarely has the opportunity to cut loose with the sort of comedic abandon she relishes here.

At first glance, the women couldn’t be any less alike: Margaret sips white wine, Patty squeezes her own lemonade; the one checks her bags, the other carries them on; one studies up on aerodynamics, one skims a Paula Deen magazine; she says “the-ah-ter,” she says “the-ay-ter.”

As they gradually lower their defenses, of course, they discover common bonds, too: Both of them are widowed; both have grown children in whom they’re disappointed. Calarco loads the characters down with an inordinate amount of excess baggage, touching on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage or the war in Afghanistan in a rather clumsy effort to force their lives into some kind of larger spiritual or political context.

In a similarly misguided bit of promotion, Aurora is also making the play out to be more than it is (inadvertently, perhaps). Audience members draw campaign buttons before the show — half are blue, half are red — as though we might become active participants, straw-polled at a certain point or somehow compelled to choose sides in the conversation between Patty and Margaret. But no. It’s much ado about nothing.

The beauty of the textured work by these two co-stars is that their characters exist on an even keel. It isn’t about right and wrong or good and bad. Nobody’s perfect. You recognize both of them as real people, whether or not you buy into everything Calarco is giving them to say.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Cochran’s finest moment is a hilarious commentary on horror movies, and Carlock shines brightest recounting a recurring dream involving visitations by various Kennedys.

Patty and Margaret may be coming from different places and heading in different directions, but Cochran and Carlock deftly meet squarely in the middle.

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