Williamstown Theatre Festival 2009, Opening Night: Children by A. R. Gurney

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James Waterston and Kate Finneran in A. R. Gurney's "Children"
James Waterston and Kate Finneran in A. R. Gurney's "Children"

by A. R. Gurney

Directed by John Tillinger
Sets by James Noone
Lighting by Rui Rita
Original Music & Sound by Scott Killian
Costumes by Jane Greenwood
Stage Manager Gregory T. Livoti

Mary Bacon – Jane
Katie Finneran – Barbara
Judith Light – Mother
James Waterston – Randy

A play by A. R. Gurney seems like an easy enough choice for a Williamstown Theatre Festival season opener. Like the good WASP that he is, Gurney went to Williams, and this will be the ninth production of a Gurney play at the Festival. On the other hand, an early play which premiered in London in 1974, long before Gurney became famous—with no less than the wonderful anglicized American actress, Constance Cummings, playing Mother, is not an obvious choice. Also like a good WASP, Mr. Gurney acquired his position as the chronicler of the decline of his class only gradually, so that it is not that easy to trace when he quietly entered the room. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when he still lurked in the vestibule, WASPs, as theatrical material, were regarded as pretty much obsolete. Arthur Miller had set a precedent, establishing lower middle and working class Jews and Italians at the center of the theatrical landscape. One might see Philip Barry’s Holiday or Philadelphia Story in summer stock, and the films of them enjoyed a periodic airing in revival houses. Tennessee Williams’ menagerie are ruled out by their Gallic origins, and their hermetic destinies make them outcasts. Albee’s characters are also outcasts in their own way. (As Gurney became better known, his constituents might be heard saying, “Finally there’s a playwright for us again.”) However, before he was widely noticed, he labored through years of bad reviews and tepid audiences. As a result, this “early” play, Children, shows well-seasoned dramaturgical skills, and a highly refined awareness of his theatrical and moral objectives. Given the distinct quality of life in the early 1970’s, Children is necessarily a period piece, but Gurney is such an intelligent observer and such a skillful manager of his theatrical and literary influences, that it is still fresh today. The American family, after all, rotten to the core as it is, hasn’t died out yet, and WASPs, more inclined to desiccation than decay, haven’t begun to fade away either. Children made for a typical WTF evening of the best sort—literate, polished, amusing, and even discreetly thought-provoking.

At this point I’ll interject that director John Tillinger deserves the highest praise for this absorbing production. When I saw it, there seemed still to be some opening night stiffness, although the production has already had a run at the Westport Country Playhouse. The play could use more lightness in rhythm and mood, but I have confidence that that will come as the performance mellows. My only question is about how well costumes, direction, and acting captured that strange period, when even the most solid, conservative elements felt a subtle unease, even if they didn’t have a Patty Hearst in the family. And I assume that costume designer Jane Greenwood could not find authentic examples of the ubiquitous espadrilles of the time. People of this sort like their uniforms.

The astringency of Gurney’s detachment helps him to avoid all sorts of traps that even more ambitious playwrights like Williams and Miller were susceptible to: sentimentality, overly obvious allusion, contrived pseudo-tragedy. Gurney clearly likes Mother as much as I do. He has expressed his attraction to this courageous, Katherine Hepburn-like personality. She has her emotional baggage, but she is intelligent enough to evaluate her situation in a practical way, and can avoid ending up as a sacrifice to the loathsome Pokey, or any of her children, her class, or whatever short-sightedness of her own that may have come from it. No fausse tragédie for her or her creator. The traditional fascination of American playwrights and novelists with the American family as the epicenter of the American psyche is still powerful. O’Neill and Miller chose to present this on an Aeschylean or Sophoclean foundation, whilst for Williams and others, including Gurney, when declining elite families have it out in a beloved, decaying country estate, Chekhov is never far away. Gurney’s deft handling of a habitual reference which has long transcended mere triteness, for example in Tracy Letts’ vastly overrated August: Osage County, is truly impressive. The intertextual allusions to The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya arrive discreetly, do their naughty work, and disappear. They are effective, because Gurney knows what he wants to make of Mother, Randy, and Pokey. He doesn’t need Chekhov as a crutch.

In this production, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, true to form, rewards the audience with a lollipop at the very beginning in a gorgeous set which conjures up all the atmosphere and detail of that part of the world. Our family have a substantial, but not vulgar shingle house by the beach, which reminds me specifically of one house, which is not on Martha’s Vineyard but in Wellfleet, but never mind… The inhabitants of the house are themselves not unattractive, especially Mother, played with authority and right sort of ease by a strikingly handsome and stylish Judith Light. Of course none of her children, nor her daughters-in-law, live up to her example. Her son, Randy (James Waterston, who hits just the right note of fatuity), coaches and teaches Latin at St. Luke’s prep school, which may play against Exeter on occasion, but which is clearly not worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence. Daughter Barbara, vividly played by Kate Finneran, who is punctilious about the traditional standards of child-rearing, has developed some slatternly traits, including matutinal drinking and a long-term affair with the former lawn-boy, a cheesy Vineyard Lopakhin. (Towards the end, Mother gives her brilliant advice: “Just tell him you’re tired of talking about real estate.”) Mary Bacon, who seems incapable of being an ordinary type, makes a brave and engaging attempt in her portrayal of Randy’s just-about-fed-up wife, who is overawed by the accomplishments of Pokey’s Jewish wife Miriam, who wears no bra, is casual about washing, plays chamber music, and pursues a Ph.D. in some socially useful field; she recognizes herself and Randy as “jerks” as they appear in their “costumes” for the ball at the local yacht club. (Once again, these people like their uniforms.) She wore her coming-out gown and he a football uniform, which is the standard in their circles—non-disguises which only make caricatures of their mundane identities. In good WASP form, these costumes involved no significant financial outlay, and that is their charm, I suppose.

The rest of the characters remain unseen (most vividly so!), except for Pokey, who remains silent and appears only in silhouette. It is hard to see the family rebel as anything other than a cad…no, a creep of sorts. While Randy’s tantrums demonstrate a shocking lack of maturity in one who is entrusted with the development of adolescent boys, above all in teaching sportsmanship and the legacy of Julius Caesar, we know Pokey earned those stitches on his head. Pokey, indirectly but knowingly, wants to destroy the material means of the family’s communality and comfort by forcing his siblings to buy out his share of the house, thereby forcing them to sell it. His reason? He wants money to quit his job and find his real self. Pokey betrays his class without transcending it, and in this failure he is despicable in a way the others are not.

Gurney’s world is not farcical, although certainly satirical, and it is most definitely not tragic. In the end, the lawn-boy does not get the house, Mother is not cast adrift, no one commits suicide, and the fratricide was not consummated. Mother, realizing that her children’s shortcomings—above all Pokey’s—would not allow her to accomplish her first objective, eventually found a Plan B, which, bringing on the added pleasures of scandal, promises an even more fulfilling solution. (If only poor Lear had been a woman!) I don’t think I’m giving away too much if I say the ending, most eloquently played by Judith Light, is “dry.”

Let us now remember Digby Baltzell of Phildelphia, who is credited with the invention of the acronym WASP, which, I regret to say, is much abused, as if it were as obsolete as the Franklin stove, and nobody’s around who can remember how to get it fired up. I found a fine tribute to Digby on the website of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught sociology for many years. It is good to end with Digby’s own quotation from W. H. Auden:

The class whose vices
he pilloried was his own,
Now extinct, except
for lone survivors like him
Who remember its virtues.

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