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Of Good Stock

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jennifer Mudge, Heather Lind, and Alicia Silverstone
Photo by Joan Marcus

The eternal battle between nature and nurture establishes its latest front line in Of Good Stock, the play by Melissa Ross that just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I space at City Center. Wait, sorry. I suppose I also should have mentioned that it does so in triplicate, with Ross investigating how three sisters, ranging in age from 30 to 40, tackle getting older, falling in love, and discovering who they are while coping with past ghosts that haunt not just their everyday lives but may also have infected their very blood.

If such a description sounds like an unsteady combination of undercooked and overdramatic, well, that's about right. Ross (Thinner Than Water, Nice Girl) does not address too many fresh issues in painting portraits of the Stockton trio, Jess (Jennifer Mudge), Amy (Alicia Silverstone), and Celia (Heather Lind), even within the boundaries she herself sets. All three cope with the same basic problems: their men (played by Kelly AuCoin, Greg Keller; and Nate Miller), their parents (mom for about 20 years, dad for quite a bit less), and their relationships with each other (toxic, to put it nicely). And, across some two hours of playing time, neither Ross nor her director, Lynne Meadow, much succeeds at making any of this newly necessary. Still, even the familiar can impress if it's presented well, which is thankfully the case here.

The good news starts with Mudge, who's typically magnetic as Jess. This is a woman lifting some heavy burdens of responsibility and genetics, and Mudge lets you feel every ounce of that weight while not hiding all traces of the vibrant woman locked within. That provides just the right canvas for Jess, who's finding herself drifting away from her husband, Fred (AuCoin), in her final hours of being 40. She may, however, have a good reason: She's afflicted with cancer, and underwent a mastectomy several months earlier, leaving her future (if any) in significant doubt. This has instilled in her a pain and immediacy that she can't share, even with Fred, though her bond with her sisters may present other opportunities for the personal therapy she needs. Though when Amy and Celia arrive at Jess's home (inherited from their father) for her big birthday, it doesn't seem that way.

Greg Keller and Kelly AuCoin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Amy has sent out invitations for her winter marriage to Josh (Keller), and though the couple can't keep their hands off of each other, there's a coldness between them that increases whenever Amy gets particularly screechy or needy (which happens a lot). And no one exactly believes that commitment-phobe Celia is really so in love with college dropout Hunter (Miller) that she'd be willing to drop everything for him and move to Montana; he's too far out of their sphere (he has 12 siblings, and a bushy beard that gives him the stereotypical air of a redneck mountain man). And whenever anyone dares bring up any of these myriad differences or incompatibilities, tempers flare and incriminations fly, with results that become increasingly catastrophic as the weekend wears on.

But rather than a depiction of how sororal ties come apart under such circumstances, Of Good Stock is a demonstration of why the strife makes these women stronger. As play unwinds, and we get to better to know the histories and the expectations they're defying, we see just how much each has accomplished, and what those successes mean. Sure, each is struggling in her own way to not be defined by their father, an immensely successful and still-in-demand Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who slept around incessantly in the years following his wife's death, and to face his impact on the rest of the family. (Amy, for example, is more than a little resentful that Jess ended up with the house all to herself.) But their even more vexing internal barriers show that it's how they define themselves—by choosing the terms on which they live—that matters most.

Ross makes that interesting above and beyond the pedestrian setup, so that even the predictable elements (which are most of them) come across as more dramatically necessary than dramatically inert. And by the time all the women finally collide at full velocity in a dockside scene late in Act II, you may be caught off-guard by the resolute strength the playwright has found in all her characters, not just the one that's fighting most outwardly to live. Only one of them has cancer, but each hurts in a different, totally viable way, and it helps tremendously that neither Ross nor Meadow, whose staging is unadorned but effective throughout, plays favorites among them. (The richly detailed beachfront cabin set is by Santo Loquasto, and it's thoughtfully lit by Peter Kaczorowski.)

To the extent the evening fails to live up to the promise of its writing, it's because neither Lind nor Silverstone is able to match Mudge's focused intensity. The former comes closer, suggesting a laid-back intellectualism to juxtapose against her id- and heart-driven behaviors, but Lind falls just short of unifying the two into a single personality. Silverstone, on the other hand, latches onto only Amy's entitled whininess and riffs on it every which way, without making clear where within the character it comes from—a choice that could be essentially correct, but is too lacking in nuance to land with any force. The men are much better overall, with AuCoin's Fred the most tortured and layered, but each powerfully torn between who they are and who they long to be.

In other words, there's ultimately not that much difference between the men and the women. But, for all intents and purposes, the ladies run this show, and they have the longer, more compelling journey, and it's one that nicely energizes Of Good Stock just where it needs it most. None of the Stocktons may know whether they should curse or thank their father for making them who they are, and you suspect they'll spend what time they have left in their lives trying to determine it for sure. But their search for answers amid ever-mounting questions is one you'll be glad for the opportunity to take part in.

Of Good Stock
Through July 26
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
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