As performed by the gifted actress Veanne Cox, Julianna Finley, the heroine of Joan Ackermann’s play “The Batting Cage,” is a creation both delightful and distressing: a Tennessee Williams woman reimagined for a Wal-Mart world. As for the play itself, it may have more in common with the contraption of its title than the author imagined. It’s a slightly artificial environment where fun can be had, but nothing is hit out of the ballpark.
Julianna, checking into a Florida Holiday Inn with her sister shortly after checking out of her marriage, is a woman for whom all silences are awkward. Since her mole-like sister Wilson (Babo Harrison) gives a fair impression of catatonia, Julianna fills the stale air of their pastel room with endless, chirpy chatter: about the myriad local delights waiting to be tasted (“So much history, history galore! Did you know St. Augustine is the oldest settlement in the country?”); about her sartorial dissatisfaction (“I saw myself in a mirror and said, Who is that person? That Sears Roebuck catalog woman from Akron, Ohio, some luncheon hostess at an Olive Garden chain restaurant?”); about Wilson’s lost suitcase, which contained the ashes of their late sister Morgan, whose death from diabetes the trip is intended to commemorate.
As shopping bags and kitschy gewgaws begin to clutter her half of the room, humiliations likewise begin piling up around Julianna. Desperate for company, she’s reduced to inviting the room-service delivery boy to dinner. A phone call to her ex-husband is answered by his new girlfriend. She sleeps through the ultimate affront, as a faux conquistador she’d met in her tourist trawling climbs into the wrong bed.
Cox brings a touching grace to the potentially overbearing character and manages to quietly underline Julianna’s dignity without shortchanging her pathos. Her crisp, prim delivery of Julianna’s elegantly phrased babble is a joy in itself, and the physical comedy she mines from an excessive sunburn, flopping awkwardly as if in a straitjacket of pain, is brilliant.
But the play doesn’t deliver much more than the sad charms of this engagingly written character. Although the familiar setup promises a reckoning between the two sisters over their sister’s death and their own troubled relationship, it’s long in coming and too speedily dispatched in a second-act confrontation in which Wilson cruelly derides her sister’s “airy voice babbling on inanely” — an insult we’re not inclined to indulge, since Wilson’s mummified stare is far less entertaining than her sister’s airy babbling. The nature of the late Morgan and of their own grief is never deeply explored.
Although Wilson finds emotional catharsis from her mourning — and, strangely, sexual release — in a visit to the batting cage, it’s related in a stagy monologue in which Wilson’s sudden eloquence seems implausible (Mensa genius though she may be). The play closes with the equally sudden arrival of the sisters’ mother (Anne Pitoniak), whose participation in the trip had to be canceled after a tangle with a bike messenger, the recitation of which occasions her own emotional catharsis. Only poor Julianna doesn’t get to work through her pain, the acknowledgment of a kind gesture from Wilson notwithstanding.
Director Lisa Peterson can’t do much with the play’s deficiencies — and one wishes she had done something with the heavy-handed final tableau — but she is to be credited with shaping the fine work of both Cox and Pitoniak. Harrison has a tougher time with the more contrived character of Wilson, and never loses the mien of a pretty woman trying to act plain, thick glasses and all.