Friend of My Youth and
Word for Word Company, now in its sixth year, is one of the best acting companies in the Bay Area. All members are equity. This San Francisco group brings works of fiction to the stage, not in adaptations, but in their entirety. It is almost like reading a favorite book. Nothing is added or subtracted from the original text. It is more than a stage reading since this company fleshes out the stories and finds the physical and emotional realities between the lines.
The company recently presented Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth. It is a poignant memory story about two sisters who share a tangled romantic triangle on a hardscrabble farm outside of Ottawa. The narrator is a woman whose mother had come to live with the sisters as a young unmarried boarder. The daughter is played by Delia MacDoughall who was mostly good in the role. The main section deals with the mother as a young schoolteacher and the odd family that boards her.
Flora, the placid but potent sister played by Jeri Lynn Cohen, breaks off her engagement with her fiancé when he impregnates her flighty sister Ellie played by the arresting JoAnne Winter. A series of miscarriages and misfortunes ensues, followed by the entry of a bossy home nurse played superbly by Susan Harloe. The younger sister dies of a mysterious illness and the nurse stakes her claim on the husband, thereby claiming victory over Flora. This is the main level of the play. It is also the most interesting in direction, writing and acting.
The other level is the conflict between the daughter/narrator Delia MacDoughall and her mother, who are played by various actresses. This level wobbles in spots. There is an austere detachment between these two. These scenes are talky and sometimes overacted. The mother is vibrantly played by Nancy Shelby as a young woman and by Patricia Silver as an elderly invalid. Both admirable in their roles. There is one male actor in the group; Simon Vance as Robert projects a sullen virility in his role. The story is brought to life in unforgettable detail. If you love good writing and great theater, I recommend it. The production is at the Magic Theatre and it closes September 5th.
I am sorry to say that there is no pride in Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing. This play is having its Northern California premier at Theater Works. Tina Howe, a well known playwright who wrote Art of Dining, Painting Churches and Coastal Disturbances, misses the mark with this play. It first played at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and then moved to the Mitts E. Newhouse Theater in New York where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play in 1998. I frankly don’t know why it won that prestigious award.
Pride’s Crossing is a thin play. It is more a memory collage than a memory play. The central character is a 90 year old woman looking back on life. Mabel Bigalow is the oldest survivor of her family and she is being visited this Fourth of July week end by her granddaughter and great granddaughter who live in Paris.
Mabel is rather deaf, walks with the aid of a walker and has some money from her New England family. She now lives in the chauffeur’s quarter of the old estate. Every year Mable wants to throw a croquet party on the lawn of the family home called Pride’s Crossing. She has had this party for the past 80 years and she insists that what friends she has who are alive dress up in the dresses and suits of 1917.
The play interleaves past and present and we see memory vignettes of her life for the past 80 years. We find that Mable was a great swimmer and that in 1928 she was the first woman to swim the English Channel from Dover to Calais. (This is fiction by the way.) We find that swimming provides the key and touchstone of her character. We see that she fell hopelessly in love with another cross channel swimmer, a brilliant Jewish physician from Oxford. We also see that see does not marry him since she is engaged to a highly suitable, blue blooded fiancé back home.She marries the finance who turns out to be a drunk and the marriage is a farce between them. We see a life of small disasters and modest rewards.
Maureen Silliman plays Mable from age 90 to age 16. Frankly I do not think her portrayal of a 90 year old woman was good. However, when she was middle aged, she was excellent in the role. She appeared, without benefit of makeup changes or other artificial support. Cherry Jones played the part in the New York. I think that only an actress with the stature of Ms. Jones could pull this off. I would rather had seen an elderly actress play the 90 year old and Ms. Sillman play Mable during the swimming and middle years.
The cast consists of only seven persons and they played 19 parts in the production. They would shuttle back and forth in time and across gender barriers as they portrayed Mable’s family, friends and lovers. I liked Mark Phillips who played various roles both in drag and regular costumes. His one character as Mary O’Neill, an Irish cook in the household, was a delight. Mr. Phillips is one of our better actors and was remarkable in Stones In My Pockets last season. Joanath Ingbretson is a first rate discovery and he played a variety of roles including the black sheep brother, Mable’s lover and even a wiry old matron clinging fast to her fading husband. Other cast members including Amy Resnick, who has been seen in New York and LA, Michael Santo, Cynthia Bassman and Hannah Friedman were adequate in their various roles.
The play is elusive and rather thin. It is a disjointed affair and it does not flow smoothly. Some of the scenes are very dull, such as a charade scene that goes on much too long. Also, the last scene in which the characters are all old playing croquet is like a vaudeville turn and a little insulting to older people. The play makes some winning moves but never quite plunges into the character’s depth.
The production runs until September 19. Violet, the musical by Tesori and Crawley opens on October 20.