Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Delightful Production of Wilder Times

Also see Richard's reviews of Carmelina and The White Snake

Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom
One of my favorite playwrights of all time is Thornton Wilder, who is treasured for Our Town, The Matchmaker and the avant guarde The Skin of Our Teeth (my parents took me to see the original production starring Tallulah Bankhead during Christmas break in 1942). I always loved reading his short stories over the years since there was a certain homelike quality about them that was very reminiscent of my growing up in small-town Ohio. (He studied at Oberlin College in his early years.)

Aurora Theatre, under the strong direction of Barbara Oliver has put together a program of four of Wilder's greatest shorter works for Wilder Times: Infancy (1962), Childhood (1962), The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden(1931), and The Long Christmas Dinner (1931).

Oliver has organized these slices of the human condition in a way that gives them harmony, both in content and stylishness. Her sure-handed direction is strongly supported by a superb cast that beautifully morphs from playing babies to children to adolescence to adults. As individual plays, the last two presented, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner, work best.

Infancyis an absurdist humor sitcom about fulfilling basic human needs in which babies act like grown-ups and grown-ups act like babies. Patrick Russell and Brian Tryborn play pram-bound babies desperate to understand the adults, played by Heather Gordon and Stacy Ross. This is set in 1920s Central Park where Soren Oliver plays an Italian cop. He agreeably performs it like a Keystone Kop officer. Heather Gordon is charming as a young nursemaid who loves romance novels, while Stacy Ross strikingly performs the small role of Mrs. Boker. Russell and Tryborn, who pop out of oversized prams to say witty remarks, are hilarious.

Childhood shows three adolescent siblings disenchanted with their parents and pretending to be orphans. They take an imaginary bus driven by Brian Tryborn, who also plays the dad in this sequence, to China. Stacy Ross is the mother and an imaginary passenger on the bus along with Marcia Pizzo, Gwen Kingston and Heather Gordon. They are all fetching in their roles.

Following a 15-minute intermission is The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, written in 1931 and featuring the first appearance of Wilder's narrating Stage Manager character, seven years before Our Town was produced. (The New York Times noted about this short play, "If God were to dabble in anthropology and the recording angels to write with wry humor and infinite tolerance of human folly, this is how the holy books would read.")

The Happy Journey... is about a family on an automobile trip that starts out to be lighthearted, with Stacy Ross splendidly playing a talkative, primly religious mother loving mother, Soren Oliver finely playing an obedient, attentive-driver dad, and Heather Gordon and Patrick Russell pleasurably portraying well-behaved kids. They joke and tease along the way. The trip ends on a sad and poignant note as the father tries to comfort the married sister who has just lost her baby. Marcia Pizzo gives a heartfelt performance as the daughter.

The centerpiece of the evening is The Long Christmas Dinner, an acting tour de force by the ensemble. (Wilder himself said of the piece, "Of all my plays it is the one that has found the widest variety of receptions. At some performances it has been played to constant laughter; some listeners are deeply moved and shaken by it; some find it cruel and cynical.") The audience sees ninety years pass before their eyes.

Christmas dinners come and go in the Bayard home, as does life and death. It is easy to be shaken by this touching nostalgic, piece. The actors inhabit the diverse, aging family members with ingeniously personalized touches. A schoolboy bounds into the room one minute and then in the next minute he is a frail old man. Stacy Ross gives a superb performance as she morphs from a dying old woman in once scene to a bright-eyed little girl in the next. Soren Oliver is perfect as the paterfamilias in the first scene.

Eric Sinkkonen's set design is sparse; however, his festive Christmas table in the last sequence is marvelously decorated. Maggi Yule's costumes are wonderful, ranging from the 19th century to modern times.

Wilder Times plays through December 9th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit Next up is A Down Home Christmas with Nell & Jim, opening on December 13 and running through December 21st.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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