FLASHY COSTUMES and outlandish special effects are fun and all, but This Lime Tree Bower is a decisive reminder that good theater doesn't require bells, whistles, or leotards (Cirque Dreams Illumination, that condescending intro was directed at you). Lime Tree grabs and holds the audience's attention with only the barest trappings: minimal staging (three chairs and a literal bower that emerges spookily from the darkness in the show's opening moments) and three actors with the poise and presence to command a room for 90 minutes.
Playwright Conor McPherson has gotten a lot of mileage in Portland recently—This Lime Tree Bower, co-produced here by CoHo Productions and Our Shoes Are Red/the Performance Lab, is the third of his plays to open in Portland in as many years. McPherson is an Irish writer whose work is characterized by a lyricism that never becomes flowery, and by characters who drink a lot.
Lime Tree's three characters take turns describing a pivotal few days in their lives—though no time frame is given, there's a sense that they're recalling long-past events. The youngest, Joe (Matthew Micucci), is the show's focal point, a high schooler who's developed an intense friend-crush on a classmate. His brother Frank (Matthew DiBiasio) is solid, hardworking, and devoted to their widower father; college professor Ray (Dennis Kelly) is a close family friend who is dating the brothers' sister.
The three men tell stories of an academic rivalry, a well-intentioned armed robbery, and an illicit night at a disco that ends in sexual assault. The disparate threads eventually coincide, but in a manner that sufficiently thwarts audience expectations of how a story should end.
Where the other two actors settle comfortably into the stories they're telling, maintaining a wry detachment that occasionally frays to reveal strong emotions, Matthew Micucci overplays his hand a bit with the wide-eyed teenager routine. The standout here is Performance Lab ensemble member Matthew DiBiasio, who gives a quietly remarkable performance as Frank—he brings a rare, unassuming self-possession to the role. Dennis Kelly, too, is entertainingly slimy as a philandering, hard-drinking college professor. The deftness of these performances—coupled with McPherson's bawdy yet heartfelt script—make for a unique show, with nary a leotard in sight.