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by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Audrey Cephaly

At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: . Price: $32. Runs through: Feb. 15

You walk into the theater and the first thing you see is veteran actress Kelli Simpkins standing on an old, worn-out motor boat repeatedly casting a fishing rod while Deanna Myers lies in the back of the boat reading What Color Is Your Parachute?

Scenic designer Joe Schermoly has surrounded the dilapidated boat with buckets of water, obviously there to let the actors create the illusion of actually floating somewhere and to tell us that, though they are not in the open sea, they might as well be. For however long it takes until the play begins, they remain in their own private worlds. This is how their characters, Kendra and Betty, find themselves in Audrey Cefaly's The Gulf: two lovers adrift in their lives.

The broken-down boat clashes with the self-help career choice book in a quiet, subtle manner, much the same as the passive-aggressive way in which Betty endlessly suggests possible new careers for Kendra, who she feels is wasting her life in a meaningless job. Betty is about to go to a community college to get a degree, but Kendra, with no similar ambitions, is content to float through life doing only enough to afford her the time to fish in the Alabama coastal shallows.

It takes only minutes for the two seasoned actors to establish these characters. Betty, the talkative half of this pair, flits between subjects with ease, filling the empty space with conversation that Myers peppers with childlike, sing-songy elecution suggesting someone not entirely sure of herself. Meanwhile, Kendra's contributions are often terse and uninflected as Simpkins creates her more contemplative character. When a broken motor strands the two on the water overnight, they find themselves facing some difficult truths involving their relationship, their motivations, and their fidelity to each other.

Two-person plays can be inherently a bit claustrophobic, but The Gulf's claustrophobia is somewhat ironic: though they literally have an entire sea surrounding them, the women are confined to the tiny space of their stalled boat. Director Megan Carney makes the most of this limitation, using it both to bring them together and to pull them apart. Much of the time, Betty and Kendra confine themselves to their own ends of the boat, remaining separate while together.

Relationships are tricky to build and trickier to maintain; it's easy to wake up one day and discover that you've drifted further apart than you ever realized. Both women would like their relationship to continue. There is even a dreamy Titanic-like moment that finds them entwined with each other at the boat's bow, locked in a loving dance under lighting designer Rachel Levy's starlight. But the moment passes, and the play leaves them nearly dashed to pieces on waves of anger before their relationship drifts on without any sign of resolution.

The Gulf is as much about the gulf between these two lovers as it is about the Gulf of Mexico in which they float without the power to move on seemingly destined to remain in this limbo forever.

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