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Chicago by John Olson

John Mahoney and Kevin Anderson in
I Never Sang For My Father

Also see John's review of Parade

I Never Sang for my FatherIn Steppenwolf Theater Company's current subscriber publication, Artistic Director Martha Lavey defends the company's penchant for producing plays about dysfunctional families, even stretching to include their recent Our Lady of 121st Street in that category. She could have better made the case by pointing out how their current schedule seems to include a special tribute to the parental holiday season. The Fall to Earth, about a wacko mom, will close this Sunday, Mother's Day; while Robert Anderson's drama of an emotionally distant dad, I Never Sang For My Father, is scheduled for its last performance on Father's Day. Coincidence?

Anderson was a major Broadway writer in the '50s and '60s (Tea and Sympathy, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running ), and I Never Sang for My Father had a prestigious 1970 film adaptation that earned Oscar nominations for Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman. As a memory play narrated by an adult child remembering a parent, it's a son of The Glass Menagerie and a father to Side Man. For Steppenwolf, it's a worthy showcase for two of their best known company members, Kevin Anderson and Frasier's John Mahoney.

Father's dialogue will resonate for anyone who's watched their parents age, or anyone who's paid attention to someone in that situation. As the adult son Gene, Kevin Anderson captures in painful, familiar detail the impatience of adult children dealing with parents who are forgetful, stubborn, repeat themselves and refuse to even acknowledge, let alone accept, the reality of their aging. Mahoney as the father Tom is equally effective at helping us empathize with the loss of independence and status that comes with failing health.

The piece moves beyond those themes as the characters and their backstories are established. Tom was apparently a self-made man, a success in business and politics, eventually becoming mayor of a suburban New York community. He's still regarded with respect by those of his generation and it's hard for him to let go of that status. The son of an alcoholic runaway father, Tom has always had trouble with intimacy toward his children and in fact banished his daughter from the house for marrying a Jew. Son Gene is a recently widowed university professor. Tom seems to have trouble empathizing with Gene's grief, even after his own wife dies halfway through the first of the play's two acts. Gene's desire to establish a loving relationship with his father becomes more urgent when the death of his mother and Tom's failing health increase the father's emotional and physical needs. Gene needs to feel an emotional bond with his father, but that role for men of Tom's generation seems to demand emotional distance from children. Tom's need to conform to this image is exacerbated by his lack of connection to his own parents (his mother died when Tom was 10, after his father had already left).

Director Anna Shapiro honors the writer's restraint and never goes for phony big moments. It's all played with an amazingly effective level of understatement. The cast delivers Robert Anderson's quiet observations with subtlety and dignity. They know how to gain audience attention with a lowered voice, and just exactly how long to pause and make it all feel spontaneous. I'm not an actor, but I feel I learned a lot about acting from watching this cast.

Though the character of Gene may be somewhat underwritten, Kevin Anderson's relaxed and confident performance makes him a real person, even if the author has given us less information about him than we might like. Gene's connections to his father, mother, and sister are the heart of the play and they are never in doubt. Mahoney, who's made a few bucks by playing a crotchety old man the past decade, never takes the easy way out in creating Tom. Tom knows to charm those outside his family and manipulate those within it. He can turn between likability, vulnerability and his dark side on a dime. Martha Lavey plays the banished daughter Alice with an unfailing toughness and total lack of fear of the old man. I would like to have seen just a little more of the hurt and anger that must have led to the development of such steeliness, though.

Todd Rosenthal's production design is a triumph in minimalism. Projections on a four-panel screen provide the backdrops. Each is a simple suggestive visual, like a photo of birds sitting on a power line to establish mood at the burial of Gene's mother (Deanna Dunagan). Doors flank the screens at stage right and left and through them enter basic props like chairs, tables and a bed to establish each scene.

If God is in the details, then writer Anderson is going to Heaven. Getting into the ranks of major 20th century playwrights may take more than the ability to treat a universal theme with believable and realistic terms, though. While Father has some great writing, it's not a great play. It has a strange, barely existent arc, leading to a climactic scene in which Tom finally opens up to Gene. They seem on the verge of achieving a loving relationship when Tom sabotages that chance after Gene asks him to move with him to California. While we can admire Anderson's decision to avoid a too-simple happy ending, he fails to sufficiently establish credibility for the direction he chooses, either. Additionally, Tom, Gene and Alice all lack enough nuance to make any of them a memorable dramatic character.

The result is a play that, while resonant, feels too familiar. It may be that other writers have been inspired by Anderson and adopted some of his insights for more recent movies and plays, but a better play than this one, like The Glass Menagerie or Side Man, will always feel like an original.

I Never Sang for My Father plays Tuesdays through Sundays at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through June 20th. To purchase tickets, call the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-3830. For more information visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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