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Fine performances give 'Graduate' high marks

One raised leg casts quite a shadow.

Anne Bancroft's brief, famously suggestive moment in the 1967 film "The Graduate" - bare calf and thigh, toes perched on the barstool - was too vivid for young Dustin Hoffman to resist, and too memorable for the audience to ignore.

Theatre Charlotte aims to recapture the affection toward the original movie and the uncertainty of the early 1960s by presenting this stage adaptation by Terry Johnson. Composed of bits from Charles Webb's 1963 novel, moments from the subsequent screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, and a few original scenes, the play relies on the good will engendered from a seminal film to mask the thinness and implausibility of its script.

"The Graduate" is set in 1960s California. Benjamin Braddock has graduated with honors and has offers to attend graduate schools at several prestigious universities. His parents throw him a party to brag about their son's academic brilliance, but Benjamin feels that he would benefit from some experience of real life rather than gloat about his academic past. When the seductive Mrs. Robinson makes him an offer he can't refuse, Benjamin realizes that this lesson in life far exceeds the shallowness that awaits him following his success at school.

The play absolutely wouldn't work without a strong actor in the lead role, and Theatre Charlotte has found that with Adam Griffin. As Ben, Griffin puts in a wonderfully complicated performance. His bewilderment about his next steps resonates with equal parts hope and apprehension. Griffin has good instincts, and consistently finds the right tone.

Stephanie DiPaolo plays Ben's not-so-coy lover, Mrs. Robinson, as a woman with a steely confidence in her sexuality and her ability to seduce. She handles the nude scene, made famous by Kathleen Turner in the London and Broadway premieres, with aplomb. Yet, we also are treated to glimpses of the character's vulnerability, especially regarding anything to do with her daughter, Elaine.

Benjamin's parents force him to take Elaine out on a date, and he realizes that her innocence, curiosity and optimism (the exact opposite of her mother) are exactly what he needs to seize hold of his own future. Keely Williams, as Elaine, consummately epitomizes the hopefulness and idealism that would counterbalance Ben's aimlessness and cynicism.

Other fine performances include Philip Robertson as Ben's father and Victor Sayegh as Mr. Robinson. Robertson, bursting with pride at first, takes Ben's downfall very hard, and we can see his confusion and anger as the truth of his son's actions is revealed. Sayegh has a very moving scene when he confronts Ben with his knowledge of the affair. He movingly portrays the despair and fury of a man wronged.

Chris Timmons' minimalist set metamorphoses very well into bedroom, hotel lobby, hotel bedroom, even into the church with the shadow of a stained-glass window. Timmons' lighting through the louvred, wooden slats above the stage and stage right is moody and atmospheric.

James Yost's smooth direction keeps Benjamin grounded at the eye of the storm, even as people and events spiral out of control around him. The real thrill is in Benjamin's struggle to make a life for himself. And the ambiguity Yost evokes in the last scene closes the show on just the right note.

"I'm just a little worried about my immediate future," Benjamin gulps at one point. No kidding.

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