Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Country House"

The Country House
Donald Margulies

Photo by Kevin Berne
All the needed cast is arriving in the wooded Berkshires to ensure that Donald Margulies’ play about theatre people, The Country House, covers the bases in poking loving jabs at all possible roles in this regional premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.  Here enters (with a flair of course) the aging Grand Dame Anna, desperate to be on stage again and almost delirious in trying to remember her lines for a summer stock show.  She ushers in hunky, abs-perfect, and family-friend Michael, fresh from his TV and movie stardom roles and People Magazine covers.  Son-in-law Walter, a sixty-something director/producer of action movies geared toward 15-year olds (Truck Stop 3 anyone?) has arrived with his thirty-something, Twiggy-built girlfriend, herself a rising Hollywood starlet.  Such an ensemble would not be complete without Ann’s angry, alcoholic actor-son Elliot who never made it past local stages and who now has grand ideas of being a playwright (with his bleak Descent of Man, no less).  Nervously watching from the sides is Walter’s college-age daughter Susie, who has rejected her family’s life in theatre for the study of religion and psychology and who tends to be the one ‘adult’ in the room among all these stage egos.  All have come to the summer retreat to seek each other’s solace in the one-year anniversary of the death of Susie’s mom, Ann’s daughter, Elliot’s sister, Michael’s former lover, and Walter’s wife, Kathy – the same Walter with now girlfriend half his age (who just happens to be also the long-lost love of Elliot’s earlier life). 

Given all these thespian, family, and intersecting personal-history ingredients, high drama, roller-coaster emotions, sexual intrigues and pursuits, new revelations of secrets, and of course old-fashioned humor are all inevitable.  But to make the play even more intriguing, Donald Margulies has doctored it with numerous Chekhovian references and look-alikes and has provided a story weighted by the past, over-serious about the present, and missing any possibility that the future will ever look much different that what we see now – all straight out of Chekhov himself. 

To a person, this cast is a strong and well-tuned ensemble that plays off and complements each other with panache, zeal, and depth of skills.  The real star of the show, however, is Director Robert Kelley who orchestrates a fast-paced, timed-to-the-second set of numerous entrances and exits that perfectly punctuate the banter of the cast.  People pop in and out from all directions just in the moments that provide the most possible surprise, discovery, and fun.  Subtle stances, flips of the head, rolls of the eye, and smirks on the face are highlighted in just the right moments to bring laughter time and again.  While these require excellent acting, the entirety is due to a vision based on a love of theatre people, their lives, and their quirks that this director clearly has brought to the production. 

Strongly supporting the director’s and cast’s efforts is a set and setting by Scenic Designer Andrea Bechert that in itself is a character in this homage to summer stock theatre New England and to Chekhov’s country homes in the Russian dark woods.  Full of pictures from the glories of past starring roles, these walls clearly have stories they could tell to the stunningly beautiful trees that hover all around the open-roofed set.  Inspired lighting decisions and accuracy by Steven B. Mannshardt and realistic sound designs by Brendan Aanes complete a rainy setting that mirrors the stormy hubbub inside the house and that permit shocking and embarrassing discoveries as lights flicker, go off, and IPhones light up the night.

Director Kelley’s sense of theatre folks as family is clearly seen in the way he paints the final moments of the play when, still true to the peculiarities of their characters, mother, son, and granddaughter connect in their grief of loss and their rarely expressed, but clearly felt love of each other.  While nothing leads us to believe that any one of them or the other characters has changed for the better or worse during the course of our play, we do leave deeply touched by what it means to be family -- no matter how messed up, ego-centered, or downright eccentric individual members might be.

Rating: 4 E’s

The Country House continues through September 20, 2015, at the TheatreWorks stage at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, Mountain View.

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