Joe DiPietro’s play, The Last Romance, is dense with sentiment, humor and humility but calls for a simple set, making it ideal material for the SteamPlant’s black-box style theater. Unadorned white front lights open on a quaint wood-slat park bench with ample room for two. The perspective feels like a mind’s-eye view within the sparse surroundings.

Andre Wilkins sings opera as a young Ralph Bellini.

A young man, played by Andre Wilkins in a modest gray woolen suit, welcomes the audience into the story with his resonant tenor softly delivering a verse from Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci. The opera relates the story of a clown whose wife takes a lover, forcing the clown to earn his living making others laugh while masking his internal suffering. Pagliacci weighs heavily in both the plot of the play and the ethos of its protagonist, Ralph Bellini.

Rose (Jan Justis) speaks to her brother Ralph (Mike Fay) in a dog park Ralph visits to quell his loneliness.

As portrayed by Mike Fay, Ralph is an amiable, playful older gentleman characterized by his working-class Italian background in a Hoboken, N.J., neighborhood. We encounter Ralph sitting on a bench in a dusty dog park against the backdrop of the bustling city park projected onto a screen in the SteamPlant theater. We begin to understand Ralph and his purpose in the dog park when we meet Rose, his sister. She scolds him for wandering off from their shared apartment. Jan Justis brings to Rose a well-formulated blend of endearing kvetching and exaggerated Italian-American inflection. Justis anchors us in the story, skillfully using her stagecraft to dial in the mannerisms of a family struggling emphatically through their days and years with both humor and vulnerability. Watching Justis is great fun, and her acting chops keep the production on pace.

Carol Reynolds, played by Jane Templeton, holds Peaches, played by Charlie.

The plot comes into focus when Carol Reynolds, from the affluent side of the park, enters with Peaches, her pet “chihuahua mix” played by Charlie, a pomapoo with some impressive Salida Circus credits to his name. Jane Templeton does a solid character sketch of Carol, over-dignified but with poorly camouflaged loneliness. Carol clutches Peaches as she arrives and sets the small dog down to exercise, eventually finding a spot on the park bench as far from Ralph as possible. The bench becomes the stage of a dance-like flirtation between two lonely people from different sides of the park.

Fortunately, Di Pietro’s well-crafted script avoids the temptation to overindulge in the rich-girl/poor-boy aspect of the story. The attraction is in Ralph’s earnest and unsinkable nature as it buoys the existentialist meekness that privilege and circumstance have wrought upon Carol. Eventually, Ralph’s good nature even brings a contentedness to his emotionally stilted sister. Having suffered through many disappointments and losses, Ralph defines himself with the ability, when life’s monotony sets in, to go sit on a bench in a dog park with no dog, hoping to meet someone new.

Fay, in his first dramatic performance since high school, connects in his role as Ralph, creating a charming character who employs his passion for music and culture to alternately woo and provoke Carol out of her cocoon. Ralph entertains with affability and humor as he hits on Carol and slyly delivers his punchlines.

“You are coming on to me,” Carol pouts at one point.

After driving home a pretty impressive guilt trip about how he is an innocent and lonely man looking for company – almost bringing Carol over to his side of the bench – Ralph grins, “Haha, fooled you! I’m totally coming on to you.”

Music comes to represent Ralph’s insistence on living with gusto and appreciation. Wilkins’ younger version of Ralph returns with several interludes of opera while Fay’s older Ralph also indulges in the occasional operatic moment along with an almost compulsive, nervous recitation of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Templeton provides some delightful moments of squirming and over-adjusting as Carol evolves past the brittle edges of her character. “Why is everyone in the opera so fat?” she asks at one point.

Ralph explains that every moment and character in the opera is “big,” bigger than life. Each character has an arc in this play that explores, in ways surprisingly complex for three characters, how we fulfill each other’s need for romance.

Dramatic challenges occur in the moments of distasteful emotion that well up between a lovesick octogenarian, his wounded and dependent caretaker, and a metamorphosing misanthrope.

Director Katwin Hinerman demonstrates her skill in focusing the production on the key elements of plot and action, motivating engaging and entertaining performances from committed actors. She noted that the actors spent many hours meeting outside of rehearsals to get their roles just right. Together with the production staff that work behind the scenes, they will turn the SteamPlant into a heartwarming place with plenty of laughter using only a screen, a bench, a chair and some luggage for four performances this Thursday through Sunday.

As exemplified by this production of The Last Romance, Stage Left Theatre Company provides the Upper Ark Valley with an amazing resource that has established an award-winning community theater tradition. We applaud the commitment of Hinerman, Creative Director Devon Kasper, the cast and the crew, who carry on this tradition by finding stories that speak to them, devoting hours to developing those stories and producing quality community theater on a regular basis.

Kudos also go to the sponsors who provide crucial support for Stage Left and to the Friends of the SteamPlant and city of Salida for providing a public venue for live performances that enhance local culture and quality of life.