note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark
Set Design by Chet Suchecki
Sound Design by Charles deemer, Michael Siering
Lighting Design by Robb Macomber
Stage Manager Darrick Jackson
Emily..................Krista J. Cowan
June.............Lauren Ashly Suchecki
There are three wonderful things to experience in Salem. One is the waterfront, with a cool sea breeze under a cloudless sky. The second is the best bar in the North Shore: In A Pig's Eye. The third is performances by Wharf Rats Productions. Sunday afternoon I got to enjoy all three. The occasion was the world stage premiere of Charles Deemer's "Famililly" winner of the Rats' 1997 Crossing Borders International Playwriting Competition.
The Rats chose a play of ideas --- not surprising for a company that instead of paying personnel splits the take with socially conscious institutions, in this case Strongest Link AIDS Services, Inc. The play sets two generations arguing over what should be done about the obvious decay of "family values" in an attempt to give as many innocent children a chance to grow up un-abused, un-molested and alive. The playwright suggests one solution would be to let committed, permanent gay couples adopt and cherish kids. He also makes a strong case for suicide as a dignified alternative to the ravages of therapies that can only steal months from the inevitable.
Deemer starts with a typical nuclear family reunion on 4 July, 1976, who have decided to dress as historic figures to ride a float in the city's parade. George, the curmudgeonly, opinionated dad is the father of his country, of course, his wife Martha. Their unmarried history-professor daughter decides on America's first playwright, a little known Mrs. Otis. Her brother's character is ill defined, but his life partner picks Ben Franklin, and nervously rehearses a re-write of the Declaration of Independence calling for a new definition of "family" he's intending to recite as a one-man show that evening. The brother's ex-wife --- who has decided to follow a dream of herself as a jazz singer into classes, and to give custody of their child to the gay couple --- also makes an appearance.
The conflict in the play is perfectly mirrored by the pre-performance music: a long stretch of Glenn Miller followed by Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'". Each character has a point, stubbornly defended, and quirks and jokes and resentments from years of growing up together alternately underscore the battle or prick the intensity with remembered fun. Dad is a bit to the right of Patrick Buchannan, demanding a return to the man-woman child-rearing team, wondering why staying together for the good of the children isn't a viable option anymore. His world has changed right out from under him, and he feels alienated but stubbornly against change. His help-meet wife though less dogmatic is only grudgingly capable of compromise.
Of the younger quartet, it's the brother's lover who is most together, most understanding, most sensitive to others' integrity and problems. He would indeed make an ideal "mother" for the contested child. The real mother vacillates, partly through fear of reaching for what she wants, partly from the weight of traditional Motherhood, partly out of vindictive resentment over being rejected. Her ex-husband is also a vacillator, deeply resentful of his father's dogmatic refusal to accept his sexuality. In many of these squabbles, sis has a swing vote. She also smarts because her liberal politics enrages dad, but she is the family diplomat, responding to genuinely held personal convictions while attacking insincerity.
It would be enough if all these present problems and past animosities were to churn along, much the way any family reunion does, but in the midst of it dad makes some settlement of them all a priority when he reveals that three months before he was given a six-month death-sentence by an oncologist, and hoped to use the reunion to stage a sort of wake for himself and control his own death, rather than suffering through useless heroic medicine. He admits to being tired of trying to live by outmoded values, and begs to die with dignity.
That's a lot for a play to chew over, but Charles Deemer's method of telling the tale adds immeasurably to it. All the characters break the scene repeatedly, to speak asides directly to the audience. Some of these are merely quick quips commenting on the action, or the insincerity of what being said. Some are longer explanations or justifications of argument points. Some are memories of past events that it would be impossible to convey as subtext, though they'd be understood by everyone in the room except the audience. All these asides engage the audience directly into the action as bare bones dramaturgy never could.
The performance I saw would have been better had I not been one of only five people in that audience. Also, as I lunched at In A Pig's Eye I happened to run into Laney Roberts, the show's director --- That's not surprising. Laney is the shorter, blonder waitress at The Pig, the one wearing a Wharf Rats tee-shirt --- and she admitted they'd had to replace an actor on short notice. I think it's a credit to the cast that I couldn't tell which of them was new.
Still, the performance had difficulties, and they showed. Only David Egan felt secure enough in character to rip off a full-out reaction of rage at one point, and Susan Hearn collapsed neatly into hysterics as well, but in general everyone treated everyone else with a tentative gentleness out of keeping with the force of their confrontations. James Butterfield as George even looked a little like Pat Buchannan, and gave a solid reading --- especially as a beleaguered patriarch at the end of his rope. He would have seemed even stronger with more forceful opposition to bounce against.
Then, too, the playwright might benefit from one more major re-write, to make certain his characters remain people rather than spokespeople. In particular, he ought to watch three actresses improvise together on their back-stories, and then give them some confrontations wherein they could round out their personalities. Sis, for instance, has been avoiding reunions to avoid fighting political squabbles with dad, but nowhere in this argument over older family values does anyone stigmatize her as a grown woman with neither husband nor children. The ex-wife barely gets started on her own point of view, whereas mom often looks like compliant wallpaper.
But all of these are suggestions for improvement of what is already an interesting show. And its set, designed and built by Chet Sucheki, is the perfect middle-class family home, a living-room downstairs and a bedroom on an upper level with a flawlessly bannistered staircase uniting the two, all of it behind a front door Norman Rockwell would envy, and unused rattan lawn-chairs in the front yard. There was no credit for the costumes, but they were fine.
In fact, the one thing that would really improve this Warf Rat Production would be a lot more asses on its empty seats. The minds that come along with them will not be disappointed. (But, if you're determined to avoid good theater, I suppose I should explain that as a child, when her brother said he wanted to be a policeman, sis insisted "I want to be a famililly." Now you know.)