Also see Fred's review of Speech & Debate
Set on a Fourth of July weekend, Mother (Judith Light) has invited her children for the holiday. Barbara (the very fair Katie Finneran), divorced, is fooling around with Artie, who once did landscaping at the summer house. Randy (James Waterston) is a volatile sort who cannot tolerate any tennis match he does not win. He happens to teach at a boarding school and is married to Jane (Mary Bacon). The perceptive Jane feels that most everyone in the family is something of a dolt, including (perhaps) herself. Her other sibling, who never speaks and is seen only once, is called Pokey. Pokey is married to Miriam, a woman Jane admires. Jane also feels that Pokey and Miriam have raised some interesting kids: youngsters who dress down and call their parents by first names.
Gurney freely confesses that his work has been "suggested" by John Cheever's short story, "Goodbye, My Brother." Further, Gurney, who was teaching at M.I.T. when he first wrote the script, has created a new ending for the current edition. The plot actually spins about Mother's decision to soon wed an old friend of the family who was dubbed Uncle Bill.
Judith Light's performance is masterful. It is almost as if she keeps her lips zipped as she speaks. She is haughty and rigid of carriagea woman who has the capability to dominate any moment of the play and any other character on stage. While Light is a thin woman, her large presence is enough to freeze those around her. Moreover, the actress tightens her control through every word Gurney has written for her character. None of her children could possibly shake Mother.
Still, during the opening sequence, I wondered whether we were simply in store for another story about a collection of stuck-up, arrogant White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. For example, there is a line about Miriam's tendencies since she's Jewish. Really. Taken within the context of the play, however, such dated material actually fits. Besides, John Tillinger, directing, creates a neat balance of push and pull amongst the actors. The performances in Westport began in late May so this is now a seasoned yet fresh-enough cast.
There really isn't anything funny about Children, but the repartee among the characters is swift and biting. Mother infantilizes her offspring as she condescendingly converses with them. Throughout, one trusts that Gurney is speaking critically about and toward these upper crust individuals.
It is unlikely that Children, which gradually becomes a most intriguing play, will work for everyone who watches it. It surely packs a telling message for theatergoers who face, as they look upon this stage, people who resemble those they know: family members or friends. During a recent matinee, people in the audience laughed but not all that loudlypossibly nervously. The mood is unsettling and the play might cause more than a few to squirm.
The design team is excellent. Jane Greenwood, the costumer, finds perfectly appropriate outfits which evoke the early 1970s. Randy's tennis shorts are certainly a relic of the past. He, alas, is not: a husband and father, he acts as if he were fifteen. Gurney is adept with character developmentfor Randy, for everyone else.
Children continues at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts through July 12th. For ticket information, call the box office at (413) 597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.
- Fred Sokol