REVIEW by Willard Manus

Pacific Resident Theatre had a big success in 2008 with Vince Melocchi's LIONS, a play about a bunch of hard-drinking, working-class football fans. LIONS ran for a year and was published by Samuel French. Now PRT has mounted the world premiere of Melocchi's latest play, JULIA.

Unfortunately, it's not in the same league as LIONS, which had everything going for it--story, characters, urgency, relevance. This time around Melocchi has narrowed his focus and settled for a character study, an offbeat, slightly creepy one at that. Richard Fancy, in a remarkable performance, plays Lou Perino, an old man who returns to McKeesport, a small city outside of Pittsburgh, where he once worked in the fruit department of G.C. Murphy's market, a local institution now slated to be torn down. The first scene of JULIA takes place in 2004 in a sleazy coffee shop run by Steve Spinelli (Keith Stevenson), who makes most of his money taking bets for a local bookie. He and his gregarious pal Frank (Haskell Vaughn Anderson III) can't understand why Lou would come all the way from Detroit just to watch Murphy's destruction. They suspect that this bad-tempered, mysterious stranger is an undercover cop.

We soon learn that Lou does indeed have a secret agenda, which is to seek out the girl he loved and lost fifty years ago--the town beauty, Julia Spinelli. In a flashback scene, the teenaged Lou (Justin Preston) and Julia (Marley McClean) meet atop the roof of G.C. Murphy's, where they both work as clerks. Lou, on the verge of leaving to serve in Korea, makes a pass at Julia. Rebuffed, he attempts to rape her, an impulsive and stupid act that he comes to regret for the rest of his life.

Lou, overwhelmed by guilt, has returned to McKeesport to "make it right" between him and the aged Julia (Roses Prichard). Problem is, she is not only in a nursing home but suffering from dementia. To explain any more of this thin, all-too-predictable story would be to give too much away. Suffice to say that a final, tear-jerking confrontation does take place.

JULIA would have been difficult to sit through, were it not for the spendid ensemble acting (led by the estimable Richard Fancy). Guillermo Cienfuegos' direction helped a lot as well; ditto Norman Scott's sets and William Wilday's lighting design.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 Venice Blvd. Call 310-822-8392 or visit pacificresidenttheatre.com.