Friday, November 23, 2012

These American Lives

Someone recently sent me a cartoon in which a dejected extrovert sarcastically moaned "Oh, great! I get to stay in on Saturday night...." while a beaming introvert chuckled "Oh, great! I get to stay in on Saturday night!" Over the years I've often found myself doing the exact opposite of everyone around me. Once again, I spent Thanksgiving Day alone and cherished every moment of solitude.

It's strange how, as a person ages, his goals and preferences change dramatically. For some people, a strong streak of resentment starts to build as they think about the crushed hopes, abandoned careers, and aborted dreams that were stifled by circumstances beyond their control. Often, as the decades pass, we react to certain songs with a sadness and wisdom that can only come with years of life experience.

Consider the following two clips from Stephen Sondheim's musical, Follies.  The first clip, taken from the original Broadway production in 1971, shows Sally Durant Plummer (Dorothy Collins) listening to Ben Stone (John McMartin) as he sings "The Road You Didn't Take."

Forty years later (in the 2011 Kennedy Center and Broadway revival), Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters portray Ben and Sally as they sing "Too Many Mornings."

Both songs offer a bittersweet look at the sad results of missed opportunities and emotions that were never shared for fear of rejection. Both encapsulate the tragedy of failing to communicate one's hopes, fears, and love.

Two new productions by leading Bay area regional companies demonstrate the devastating emotional toll  one's inability to be heard can have on family life. One spans a period in the first half of the 20th century when any emotional outburst or defiance of society's norms would have been unthinkable. In the other, the eruption of pent-up emotions within a family may be exactly what is needed to heal some sorely wounded egos.

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One of the great 20th century American playwrights, Thornton Wilder was noted for capturing the simplest moments in people's lives and imbuing them with a special kind of theatrical magic. In 1975 he told an interviewer that "in my plays I attempted to raise ordinary daily conversation between ordinary people to the level of the universal human experience."

During his long and prolific writing career, Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).  He lived to see The Matchmaker (a 1955 reworking of his 1938 flop, The Merchant of Yonkers) transformed into the long-running Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly! and a major movie musical.

Whether having characters like the stage manager, Dolly Levi, or Barnaby Tucker speak directly to the audience -- or writing short plays that required little if any scenery -- Wilder loved to create opportunities in which actors could engage the audience in moments of theatrical intimacy. The following clip shows Carol Channing in her 1994 touring production of Hello, Dolly! delivering one of Wilder's most poignant monologues before ending Act I with "Before The Parade Passes By."

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting an evening of four short plays entitled Wilder Times.  The first act consists of Infancy (1962) and Childhood (1962), two short pieces which allow the audience to view the world through the selfish innocence of children.

Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom portray two
infants in Wilder Times (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The second half of the evening carries much more dramatic weight. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931), Stacy Ross portrays Ma Kirby, a nervous mother whose family is driving from Newark, New Jersey to visit her married daughter, Beulah (Marcia Pizzo), whose child died shortly after being born.

Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon and  Soren Oliver
portray a family driving through New Jersey in Wilder Times
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Ross's tightly-wound mother is a bundle of nerves who threatens to abandon her son (Patrick Russell) by the roadside after he takes the Lord's name in vain. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who attended the play's world premiere in Chicago, congratulated the playwright on having so successfully captured "that detestable bossy kind of mother."

Once the family arrives at Beulah's house, it becomes evident that Beulah married well and is living in a much better neighborhood than they could ever afford. Although there is some lovely work by Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon, and Soren Oliver, Marcia Pizzo's radiant performance as Beulah is what anchors the piece with a rare and beautiful dignity.

Stacy Ross and  Marcia Pizzo portray mother and daughter
in a scene from Wilder Times (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The final piece, 1931's The Long Christmas Dinner, uses a simple gimmick to depict the passage of time. In one 35-minute long act, the audience fast forwards through 90 Christmas dinners in the Bayard family's home. With each change of scene, children grow into adults, the older generation becomes more feeble, and the house starts to feel smaller and smaller. As Wilder once explained:
"The eye is the enemy of the ear in real drama. The box set play encourages the anecdote. The unencumbered stage encourages the truth operative in everyone.  The less seen, the more heard." 
The Long Christmas Dinner offers director Barbara Oliver's ensemble magnificent opportunities to age in front of the audience's eyes with a minimal use of props. An actor's posture may become less rigid, a character may don a pair of eyeglasses, someone may become surprisingly forgetful -- all gentle reminders that time waits for no one.

Poster art for Wilder Times

Performances of Wilder Times continue through December 9 at the Aurora Theatre (click here to order tickets). This is a beautiful piece of intimate ensemble work whose subtle touches demand to be seen.

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Over at the Magic Theatre, Meredith McDonough has done a beautiful job of staging the world premiere of Anna Ziegler's tense family drama, Another Way Home. The play starts as a married couple prepares to leave New York and fly up to Portland, Maine so they can visit their teenage son (who is spending the summer as a counselor-in-training at Camp Kickapoo). Because this is a memory play, when Lillian Nadelman (Kim Martin-Cotten) stopped to wonder out loud where the name Kickapoo comes from, I couldn't help laughing to myself.

Philip (Mark Pinter) and Lillian Nadelman (Kim Martin-Cotten)
are two worried parents in Another Way Home
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The Northeast is filled with places that bear the names of famous Indians and their tribes (I spent one unhappy summer at Camp Chingachgook on Lake George). During the years that I worked at Rhode Island's YMCA Camp Fuller By-The-Sea, we were close rivals with the Boy Scouts' Camp Yawgoog. I got used to following directions that referenced Chepachet, Woonsocket, Quonochontaug Pond, Matunuck, Pawtucket, Narragansett, and rivers like the Woonasquatucket and Annaquatucket. Here's Judy Garland singing Irving Berlin's campy "I'm An Indian, Too" from Annie Get Your Gun.

When Lillian and her husband Philip (Mark Pinter) finally arrive, their son Joey (Daniel Petzold) is in no mood to put up with their bickering and meddling in his affairs. Torn by conflicting anxieties and cursed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Joey's grasp on reality is far more precarious than that of his precocious sister, Nora (Riley Krull).

For the first time in his life, Joey's starting to get along with some of the other boys and even seems to have bonded with his counselor, Mike T (Jeremy Kahn). The last thing he wants is to be embarrassed by the parents he (like most teenagers) scorns.

Perhaps rightfully so. Joey's father is a lawyer who spends far too much time at the office (perhaps as a way of avoiding his wife and children). His mother is the kind of helicopter parent who is afraid to back off and let her deeply conflicted son develop on his own. It doesn't take long for a family confrontation to erupt, after which Joey disappears and sends his parents into a state of panic.

Daniel Petzold portrays Joey in Another Way Home
()Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Powerless to do anything until they can find their son, Philip and Lillian are forced to communicate with each other in ways that are, at times, painfully candid. Mike T's surprising tenderness for Mr. & Mrs. Nadelman and his knowledge of their family life raise suspicions that lead to a shocking confrontation between Joey and Mike.

Anna Ziegler has done a remarkable job of demonstrating how Joey's anguish, anger, and alienation battle for dominance while the Nadelmans struggle to understand what has happened to their marriage. Philip, in particular, is baffled by how 30 years have flown by without his even noticing. As the Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, notes:
"This play reminds us that our children see and feel our quiet compromises and contradictions, our class warfare, and our buried rage far more astutely than we do. It's a play that, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, texts, and email, reminds us that it is never too late to stop and simply listen to one another."
Combined with Paul Toben's sensitive lighting design, Annie Smart's handsome unit set offers the ensemble a multitude of playing spaces. The production also benefits from Jeremy Kahn's laid-back performance as Mike T.

Lillian tries to communicate with her daughter, Nora
(Riley Krull) in Another Way Home (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Another Way Home is an intense 80-minute family drama that tries to build a bridge between generations before it becomes impossible for parents and children to even communicate. Performances continue through December 2 (click here to order tickets).

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