note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Chuck Galle
On Friday, September 29, 2000 The Players' Ring in Portsmouth New Hampshire offered the world a new, never before seen play by Harvey Soolman of Medford MA. Harvey is a member of the Playwrights' Platform in Boston, and has been writing plays for five years. This is identified as his fourth play, and he has a couple of screenplays in progress. Harvey has some cleaning up to do with this play; I will try to address some of the problems as I see them, but with the firm hand of Director Michael Gillett, and the exemplary performances of cast Lori Runions, Helen Brock, Peter Marshall, Dann Anthony Maurno and Margaret Whyte Kelly this is a bitter sweet, touching and humorous experience. The story is fairly basic, and is unfortunately dear to the hearts of many of us in the boomer generations; how do you have a life of your own at the point in your life when it is your own, when it becomes painfully obvious that your parents cannot have a life unless you guide it. Politicians woo us with mild references, TV does something once or twice a week about the various options, and still people in their middle lives find themselves coming into the problem unprepared and wondering how it happened to them.
Soolman's four siblings, Barbara, Eliot, Diane and baby Robert come together for an out of the ordinary visit to face the fact that Flossie, their mother, will soon run out of money. How in the world could this be?? Hadn't there been a house they all grew away from that could have been the basis for financial security? Hadn't the eldest girls, one a lawyer, the other a successful businesswoman been supervising her expenditures all this time? Whose responsibility had it been, anyway, to be responsible?? Thickening the plot are Flossie's long standing (20 years?) estrangement from Eliot for some imagined slight back then and Robert's apparent inability to handle (read acquire) his finances. For me the first laugh came when the two women ( in a little pre discussion before the fellows arrive) pause for moment to acknowledge what the audience knows inherently when the subject is first broken: Flossie is going to have to move in with one of the four. I'm not sure the cast even realized how obvious it is that that is where this play has to go. Because it is about reality and nothing is so funny as what is. Soolman has a good ear for the subtleties of family conversation, all gentle, unemotional, mildly chiding and manipulative, but on the whole, civil and undaring. For daring we need Robert, who flaunts his bum lifestyle, which apparently covers a real occupation as a salesman of exercise shoes. Robert dares to be happy. This is a Jewish family, and some stereotyping drives the characterizations. All the children but Robert have become satisfied in life after some form of psychotherapy, and they all blame Flossie for their emotional inadequacies. That all gives a nice thick broth to stew and indeed it simmers along with poignancy, a little ganging up, and some clever humor. I recommend this show to all, and most especially to those just feeling the inklings of recognition that something ain't as all right "back home" as it ought to be, and need to know that others survive this situation.
Barbara Newton has defined these characters visually right up to a T. Diane and Barbara (the character) are stylishly individual, Diane in skirts that constantly remind us that Lori Runion has legs, two very long legs, and Barbara in tailored stuff just made for a lady lawyer. Robert's deliberate casualness, and Eliot's careful off duty appearance enhance the whole sense of reality the stage with the homey set presents. The change of clothes for Flossie is all a part of the story telling in Mrs. Newton's capable hands.
Lori Runions as Diane is the perfectly in charge business-woman whose occasional confessions of insecurity never betray a vulnerability. Helen Brock, as the slightly dipso lawyer who can't find a little tolerance for her younger brother, never let's us really like her as she blames her mother for bad decisions, her brother for profligacy and the male sex for being racist, sexist and bad fathers. What victimhood is satisfied in her choice of boyfriend? Peter Marshall ably portrays Eliot, a sort of nebbish who has simply done all the so-called right things; school, job, wife, children, therapy to learn how to not have a relationship with his mother. Dann Anthony Maurno presents us with an interesting enigma in Robert, who in the long run is the only one who knows how to care for Flossie, and whose attention is directed to Flossie, as opposed to the problem Flossie is, from the very beginning. He gave us a rare moment Sunday night when he "went up on his lines" (forgot them) and beautifully created a moment's business to recover, and then moved on. This sort of thing is some small part of what live theater has to offer. Margaret Whyte Kelly is certainly a surprise as Flossie. We are prepared for some Jewish Super Mother from the discussion the kids have about her, and on comes a sort of nice, kind of meddlesome, fading little old lady, scared of what life is doing to her, and trusting in children she is disappointed with. A good strong cast.
Soolman owes a lot to the excellence of this cast, and to the carefully detailed approach director Gillett employs. It first blush I would have thought the play to be one of the Plays For Living which are written for and produced under the aegis of Family Services Association of America, the preeminent counseling services umbrella group in this country. Those plays run about 30 minutes and are used by trained counselors as a jumping off point for public discussion of some particular family problem such as child drug abuse, multi-generational conflict, alcoholism, credit card mishandling, etc. In such circumstances much of the dialog is exposition, filling the audience in with background information like an applicant filling out a mortgage form. Soolman falls into this pattern which can be corrected by embedding the information dramatically into little event situations instead of chancing loosing his audience with recitations. He is also given to allowing his characters to speak in non sequitors, both in response to others and internally. Gillett resolves most of these by giving his actors business which allows them "think time" to change the subject, or using eye contact to bridge the space in topic. Two characters are referred to several times in the play but never appear in flesh, the two spouses of the two married siblings. It is interesting that this device works, giving character to people who are not present and allowing the audience imagination to flesh them out. It must be acknowledged that this play does not have what is being referred to these days as an arc. It does not move to a tingly high somewhere and then gently or suddenly or tearfully or even, perhaps, dramatically get us back down to our seats so that we can leave the theater. It's more a little slice of life; wry, fun, reminiscent, warm. I hope Soolman will tighten it up and try it again sometime. I'm thankful to Players' Ring that they tried it this once. I suggest you try it too.
Flossie, Queen of Spades runs through Sunday October 8, playing Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00PM and Sunday night at 7:00PM. Call 603-436-8123 for reservations or more information. And they're on the web. See < A HREF="http:// www.playersring.org">www.playersring.org for more info.