Actor Joseph Ruskin can sum up his most recent theatrical alter ego, Jacob Brackish, in five words: "He's a cantankerous old Yankee."
We meet Brackish -- disagreeable eightysomething, former high school teacher and notoriously hard taskmaster -- as one half of playwright Israel Horovitz's odd-couple pairing "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," opening Friday at Long Beach's International City Theatre.
Set in Gloucester, Mass. -- a territory perhaps most famous for its vowels, but also Horovitz's real-life hometown -- "Yard" follows Brackish in the wake of a terminal diagnosis. In order to live out his remaining days at home, the old curmudgeon hires on a housekeeper. Enter Kathleen Hogan (played by Jacqueline Schultz), who, unbeknown to Brackish, is a grudge-carrying former student. For the next 12 months, Kathleen and Jacob slowly realize it's possible to forgive and forget.
"There's no war, no earthquake," says Schultz. "There's just these two people in this house for a year, and how they evolve together."
That's more than enough, according to "Yard's" director, Hope Alexander. "I love Israel's plays," she says. "They all talk about the redemptive power of love. That's such a powerful message, especially in this day and age. . . . They say we are redeemable, we are healable." And, Alexander believes, they say it just right. Horovitz "strikes a balance between humor and pathos," she explains. "Yard" "doesn't drip sentimentality; the sentiments are earned."
Entirely dependent on the talents of its tiny cast -- which, in a first, includes Horovitz himself as the recorded voice of recurring radio announcer Byron Weld -- "Yard" has the potential to shine as a showcase or collapse under its thespians' weight.
"Casting is the most terrifying part of directing," acknowledges Alexander -- a nerve-racking reality that prompted her to create what she calls a "repertory company in [her] mind." One of its perennial stars: Jacqueline Schultz, who Alexander says was her only choice for Kathleen.
This is Schultz's fifth Horovitz-penned performance, the fourth in which she's been directed by Alexander. It's a relationship that's matured nearly to the point of mind-reading, according to Schultz.
"She starts to ask me to do something, and I'll start to do it before she finishes," the actress says. "She knows the traps I can fall into and helps me out of them." Likewise, her familiarity with the playwright -- as well as the passing of time -- lends another much needed layer to her Kathleen, Schultz adds.
"There's a reason why this role came to me at this time in my life," says Schultz, now decades into a solid stage and screen career. "Years ago, I might not have understood the many things going on inside this woman all at the same time. I've evolved to this role." As a younger actress, she says, she might have been taken in by an intentionally deceptive character like Kathleen. "Now I have an idea of Horovitz's language, the way he hides things and maneuvers things. . . . Nothing is as it seems."
Some things, however, remain quite clear. Tinged with regret and transformation, the play's core can be distilled simply, says Ruskin: "Life goes on. No matter what happens, life goes on."
'PARK YOUR CAR IN HARVARD YARD'
WHERE: International City Theatre, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Fri., runs 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., ends May 25
PRICE: Opening night gala, $50-$60; Fri.-Sat., $37-$42; Thu. $32-$37.
INFO: (562) 436-4610; www.ictlongbeach.org