Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
“…your WASP couple can get married, go on their honeymoon, come home, pursue careers, have children, and get divorced in less time than it takes for a non-WASP couple to get to the part of the [wedding] reception where everyone drinks Champagne from the Maid of Honor’s brassiere.”
– Dave Barry
“How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
– William Shakespeare
The first thing I said when I saw the set for A.R. Gurney’s Children on the WTF Main Stage was “There is an awful lot of house and very little stage here.” That could have been the intention of set designer James Noone, or it could be that this stage is smaller than the stage at the Westport Country Playhouse where this production originated, but both visually and in director John Tillinger’s vision of this play, the house looms large.
We never learn exactly where it is located. We never learn the last name of the family who owns it. We never learn the first name of the current matriarch, a widow referred to only as Mother (Judith Light). We never see five of the major characters, or any of the next generation of children, of whom there are probably about a dozen.
Who do we see? Well, Mother, her two older children, son Randy (James Waterson) and recently divorced daughter Barbara (Jennifer Finneran), and Randy’s wife, Jane (Mary Bacon.) The era is the early 1970’s and it is the 4th of July weekend. The family is assembling, as they always do, at their waterfront home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts (the fact that the ferry only takes an hour and fifteen minutes from the mainland rules out Nantucket, it is probably Martha’s Vineyard or one of the privately owned Elizabeth Islands, not Cutty Hunk because Mother refers to visiting that island.)
As the play begins, they learn that the youngest child, known as Pokey, his wife Miriam, and their children are arriving on the next ferry. Pokey, age 31, has not graced a family gathering in five years. And he graces the stage only briefly late in the play, as a silent, dimly lit figure glimpsed through a screen door.
At the start of the play Mother announces that in September, she will be marrying “Uncle” Bill, a recently widowed old friend of her late husband’s. Her marriage means that the title to the house will pass to Randy, Barbara, and Pokey. Barbara is struggling to make ends meet in Boston on her alimony and trust-fund income, and an affair with a year-round island resident, Arties, who used to cut the family’s lawn as a teenager, contributes to her desire to winterize the house and make it her home. Randy, Jane, and their family live on campus at the boarding school where Randy teaches and coaches, so their income is not large either. Word comes from Pokey that he wants Randy and Barbara to buy out his one-third interest in the house so he can quit his job with the justice department in Washington, DC, and “find himself.”
This is a Gurney play, and so we are solidly in WASP country here. And we are in WASP country 35-years ago. If it is 1974, the year this play premiered, and Mother is about 65, she would have been born around 1910 and have made her debut around the time of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Barbara speaks of being engaged in 1957, if we assume she was about 20 then she would be about 37 when the play takes place and would have been born in the late 1930’s. Randy is older, probably about 40, and therefore born in the early 1930’s. We know that Pokey is 31, so he would have been born in 1943. Randy and Barbara would have come of age in the Eisenhower Era, while Pokey would have turned 20 the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated and have grown up assuming that change was the norm.
I am doing all this math so that you understand what generations we are talking about here. 35 years is a long time ago. While WASPs are never the most au courant of people, there is no time when their lifestyle was more dominant, or more repressed, than during the years of Mother’s children’s youth. By 1974, the year I graduated high school, things were changing rapidly, especially for women, and you may have noticed that there is only one man in the cast. Whatever impact the unseen Father, “Uncle” Bill, Artie, and Pokey may have on these three women, they are the ones whose voices we hear.
I went to an all-girls’ school and I have heard from the women who graduated in the decade between 1955-1965 that they faced the greatest gulf between what they were raised to expect their adult lives and roles in society would be, and what was actually possible for them once they got there. To use a sports analogy, they were trained to play volleyball, where you stand in neat lines and everyone gets their turn, and by the time they got on the field the game being played was rugby. Gurney shows us how Barbara, Jane, and, through hearsay, Miriam, deal with their changing options. Miriam, a Jew, is represented as far more open-minded and ready to embrace her future than are Barbara or Jane.
In his program note Gurney refers to Children as his “ancient writings” and says that it was his first attempt to write a full-length, “well made” play. I understand that he has made some changes to the script for this revival and is happier with it now than he has been for several decades, but the fact remains that it is an early work, and one not entirely of Gurney’s own creation. It is based on a short story Good-bye, My Brother by John Cheever, the writer who spoke for the WASP community before Gurney and had an obvious influence on him. While it is nice to have Gurney in back in Williamstown (he is a Williams alumnus and several of his works have been presented by the WTF and the college theatre department over the years) he is rather preaching to the choir here. How many Mothers and Randys and Barbaras and their children and their children’s children were sitting in the audience?
A few examples of the heavy-handedness of a young playwright at work here: Mother announces that she will go to the Yacht Club Costume Ball dressed as her favorite historical character, Eleanor of Aquitaine, “mother of kings and queens.” Randy’s rivalry with Pokey and his ultimate attack on him is clearly a biblical reference to the Cain and Abel story. And then there are all those ominous unseen or barely seen characters. An awful lot of the action takes place off stage between the scenes Gurney lets us see and hear.
Director John Tillinger has assembled an absolutely perfect cast, and they look lovely on Noone’s set under Rui Rita’s lights which are neatly planned to take us from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on this long-ago midsummer’s day. Jane Greenwood has designed costumes that scream 1974, especially Barbara’s Kork-Ease sandals, which I covet, and a floral wrap around skirt that I swear belonged to my mother (no, I didn’t call her Mummy.) Scott Killian’s sound design includes family sing-alongs – memories of Mother’s happy times past – to punctuate the scene changes, including an ironically placed chorus of Ain’t She Sweet?, but far too few sounds of the seashore. As a result, I never really believed the ocean was right out there.
The show only runs 90 minutes with no intermission. (So much for Dave Barry’s comment on the pace of WASP family life.) It contains a brief moment of full frontal male nudity, but otherwise is suitable for children 13 and up. The WTF reprints an interesting essay on John Cheever: Chekov of the Suburbs which is worth a read, and the Insider Insights prepared by the Westport Playhouse Education Department and their links to reviews of the production there are available online.
Children runs through July 12 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009