A Very Good Daughter
A rewarding new play awaits theatergoers at the New Jersey Repertory Company’s Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. Just how good is it? It is certainly good enough for me to strongly recommend it to anyone interested in a multifaceted, thought provoking traditional American play which stirs echoes of Eugene O’Neill.
The world premiere play The Good Daughter is by D.W. Gregory. To quote the author’s description of the setting, “the action takes place in a farming community in northwest Missouri, not far from the Iowa line – a part of the country where change comes slowly and at a great price.” The first act spans a period of little more than a year, beginning in the summer of 1916.
Daughter’s plot and themes are classic, having been employed by playwrights throughout the history of theatre. They provide the potential for scope and power, and for the examination of the human condition, making them irresistible to writers of vision.
The daughters are of marriageable age. Esther, the oldest, has been hardened and worn down from the rigors of having to care for the home and her younger sisters since the early demise of their mother. She is physically handicapped (this is manifested in a severe limp), and it is assumed by her family that she will never marry.
Middle sister Cassie conveys an aura of intelligence and an interest in the world outside her community which set her apart from her father and sisters. These attributes contribute to her disinterest in her suitor, tenant farmer and neighbor Rudy Bird. Rudy is a decent and practical man, with a plan to acquire land and partner with Cassie's father as a farmer. He is awkward and diffident in his courtship of Cassie.
If this were not enough, Cassie falls in love with another friend of her father, Matt McCall. He has returned from college to his parents and their general store. Bright, sophisticated, forward thinking and ambitious, he is clearly the right match for Cassie.
Ned Owens betroths Cassie to Rudy and is unrelenting in his insistence that she marry him. Matt enlists in the Army at the outbreak of The Great War and refuses to run away with Cassie (Matt’s last two actions would read better and play better if their order were reversed). Cassie runs away from her home and family, and a marriage which she cannot accept. Youngest sister Rachel (I bet that you thought that I had forgotten her) accepts her father’s dictum that she marry Rudy in place of her sister. End of act one.
When the curtain rises for act two, it is the autumn of 1924. Seven years after having run away, Cassie, the prodigal daughter, returns home. As is the norm in most such cases, Cassie has come home because she is in big trouble. There is an overabundant plot here as there is in act one. However, for most of the second act, the work becomes more resonant and emotionally satisfying as each of the six characters evolves believably in significant ways. I will not say more.
The entire play has a backdrop of drought, flood, the mechanization of agriculture and a growing ability to bend nature to our will.
If I have properly succeeded in conveying the engrossing evening of theatre being presented at this tiny 60-odd seat home of the New Jersey Rep by The Good Daughter, you will want to hear the balance of this narrative from D.W. Gregory and her talented presenters themselves.
During the first act, I felt that some of the Missouri farm accents were overemphasized. While I do not doubt their authenticity, the accents tend to make the play, along with its humor and dense exposition, feel too broadly drawn. However, when the richness of Gregory’s characterizations becomes more evident in the second act, the entire cast probes deeply to convey them.
Deborah Baum is outstanding in portraying the return of the prodigal daughter. She captures Cassie’s pretense of superiority and her ironic disdain for those she left behind. She then convincingly portrays her moments of truth.
Christine Bruno portrays the hopefulness and humanity in Esther without softening the pain and bitterness which have caused her to be abrasive. She honestly earns the understanding of the viewer for her Esther.
To round out D.W. Gregory’s three sisters, Lea Eckert strongly conveys Rachel’s maturing realization that the needs that she has as an individual are more crucial to her than fulfilling her family niche.
Davis Hall is convincing as Ned Owen. As written, Owen is a kind of one note, unreasonably stubborn individual who does not engage our sympathy. Brian O’Halloran as Rudy and David Foubert as Matt make solid contributions. It is difficult to watch Mr. Foubert here and not think of Clark Gable (or was that Rhett Butler?).
Within the realm of the possible, New Jersey Rep has succeeded admirably in conveying the scope of the work. Director Jason King Jones elicits solid work from his cast, maintains an appropriately brisk pace, and achieves a smoothness and clarity of focus that is quite remarkable under the circumstances.
The concept for the basic set is a barn with an open door looking out onto a field. As the action shifts mostly to various rooms in the residence and around the farm, the placement of the barn door shifts, and various items of furniture decorate the set. We may not always be certain just what part of the house we are in, but the design insures that a sense of the farm is always there, and the look and feel seem just right. Credit the solid design work of Fred Kinney. And the lighting and sound design (and effects) by Jim Nagle and Merek Royce Press, respectively, are terrific.
Daughter feels overwritten. It may need less plotting and more room to breathe. The event leading to the first act curtain is presented in a very contrived fashion to produce a surprise twist which undermines Gregory’s seriousness of purpose. The climax is sudden and unsatisfying. However, these reservation are significantly outweighed by the play’s virtues.
Author D.W. Gregory is terrific at conveying detail and nuance in her characters. Five of the six display extraordinarily organic growth and/or change. It is not that we are told of changed circumstance or just have to accept it as a given. Additionally, the play is loaded with ideas which arise organically from the plot and characters. It also plays against a rich canvas of our history.
The Good Daughter will continue through November 16 at the New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.
The Good Daughter by D.W. Gregory; directed by Jason King Jones; Cast: Deborah Baum (Cassie Owen); Christine Bruno (Esther Owen); Lea Eckert (Rachel Owen); David Foubert (Matt McCall); Davis Hall (Ned Owen); Brian O’Halloran (Rudy Bird).