Monday, November 28, 2011

"Children" - A Family in Transition

Review by Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephen Kunken

Few things can be as frightening, ominous or inevitable as change, as powerfully demonstrated in A.R. Gurney's Children, this 1974 work currently being given a sterling revival by The Actors Company Theatre.

In well-to-do summer home in one of the WASPish enclaves on an island off the coast of Massachusetts in 1970, a family is gathering for the July 4th weekend, where Mother (Darrie Lawrence), the widowed matriarch, makes an important announcement. Come September, she will be leaving her children the summer house and marrying "Uncle Bill," not actually a relative, but an old family friend who was one of the ushers at her wedding 34 years earlier. After their initial surprise, Mother's two oldest children Randy (Richard Thieriot) and Barbara (Margaret Nichols) are relatively happy for her; however Mother's youngest son Pokey, who hasn't been to the house since their father died five years earlier, is definitely not. Pokey is also the unofficial keeper of the family history and seems determined to keep the past alive.

Randy and Barbara meanwhile have their own problems, ones that threaten to envelop everyone around them. Randy has an obsession with sports (he can remember the scores of any sporting event he ever played), especially when it concerns games on the family tennis court. He is also a bit of control freak, prone to temper tantrums, and has a long-standing sibling rivalry with Pokey. All of which can drive those around him, including his wife Jane (Lynn Wright), to utter distraction.

As for Barbara, she's becoming involved with Artie, her first love whom she probably would have married years ago had her parents not pushed her in a different direction. Yet while Randy and Mother have different opinions about Barbara's blooming relationship with the now-married Artie, much of the objections come from the fact Artie is of a lower social class. (He used to cut the grass at the summer house years ago and now does construction work on the island.) There's also the irony that Barbara's situation with Artie has at least a few similarities to Mother and Uncle Bill.

Over the course of the weekend, Mother and her children will argue about personal priorities, family values, child-rearing, finances, past choices made and exactly what their futures might hold. Bound up in all these issues is the overriding theme of people caught up in a changing world where the idea of yacht club costume parties and always doing what is expected is beginning to lose its allure. This is most clearly personified by Pokey and his wife Miriam. He has been clearly influenced by the civil rights movement and sees injustice at every turn, while she is studying for her PhD and has a day job outside the home. Qualities Jane finds appealing, as Jane is beginning to feel the need to do something more with her life.

With Children, Gunrey has written a multi-layered and fully textured script, allowing the audience to get inside each of the character's heads, and showing how conflicted, angry and lonely they actually are. While all maintain, at least for a while, a sort of calm and contented exterior, it's because that's what they've been raised to do, yet there are cracks starting to show. From Mother's anger at an ill-timed interruption when trying to take family pictures, to Randy's obsessive need to beat Pokey at anything, to Barbara's anger at her mother for behavior Barbara perceives as hypocritical, everyone in the family has their own inner demons to fight and personal past to reconcile. It also helps that while none of the characters presented are always sympathetic, all have various qualities that make them quite interesting.

Another important aspect of the work is Gurney's deft handling of customs and places that pretty much don't exist today. Such as Barbara and Randy's late father's will which says the beach house goes to Mother until she remarries; at which time the house goes to the children. Randy's comments that this is standard practice shows the mind set of the culture at the time. It's moments like these that help set the work in a time long-gone, yet still alive in the minds of many.

Casting is excellent, Children being one of those plays that can truly be called an ensemble piece. Each role dependant on interacting with the others to make the entire story focused and well-rounded. (This also goes for the various characters the audience never sees but whom are talked about frequently.)

Lawrence is perfectly cast as Mother, the aging matriarch of the family who struggles to balance the desires of her family with her own needs, and who learns that walking away from everything and everyone she has known is not as easy as it sounds. Mother is also a woman to whom tradition, custom and class mean something specific and thus colors what she says and the decisions that she makes.

Thieriot cuts a nice figure as Randy. A man-child of sorts, he's also more than a bit spoiled; crying, jumping up and down, or throwing his tennis racket when things don't go his way. To be sure, Randy loves his wife and family, but more importantly for him, he loves things the way they were when he was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, and has been stuck in a sort of mental time warp ever since. Annoying at times, one can feel his abject fear when confronted with losing something he holds precious, while also feeling pity for his never thinking such a thing might actually have been possible in the first place.

Wright is nicely appealing as Jane, the one character above all who represents change. A devoted wife and mother, she finds herself unconsciously bonding with Miriam, admiring the way Miriam raises her children while seeming to be one of those women who "have it all." This realization causes Jane's orderly world to become unsteady as she begins to take a hard look at her own life. It's a credit to the actress that she is slowly and realistically able to bring Jane to life over the course of the play, starting out as little more than window dressing, and then growing more aware and passionate as the tale progresses.

Nichols does a good job with Barbara, perhaps most one-dimensional character in the group. A divorcee looking for happiness and easy (or “quick-fix") solutions to her problems, she's sometimes perhaps too eager to jump in with both feet before thinking about the resulting repercussions, as others point out. Yet Barbara is one of those people who, like Pokey, Jane and Mother, is starting to learn to move to her own music and who, like Mother, is desperately tying to grab what she perceives as her last chance at happiness. Barbara also carries with her a certain amount of liberal guilt at her upbringing, which may also color the choices she must make.

The direction by Scott Alan Evans is both subtle and evenhanded, working in tandem with the script to allow each character a few special moments to shine, as well as bringing all the various elements in the story together. This results in the audience being slowly drawn into the tale until one feels a part of the action taking place before their eyes.

Brett J. Banakis' set of the family beach house (actually the deck mostly) authentically give the story a sense of place, while Haley Lieberman's costumes work well with the family's somewhat old-money and conservative styles in marked contrast to the changing times around them. (Look for the final outfit Barbara wears as a complete difference to what has come before.) Lighting by Bradley King works well, as does the sound design by Stephen Kunken, complete with sounds of the ocean and sea gulls.

Children is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring the inevitably of change, both from without and within. Part family drama, part cultural history lesson, this is a quiet yet touching play that should not be missed.

Featuring: Margaret Nichols (Barbara), Richard Thieriot (Randy), Darrie Lawrence (Mother), Lynn Wright (Jane)

Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Scott Alan Evans
Production Stage Manager: Robert V. Thurber
Assistant Stage Manager: Michael Friedlander
Dramaturge: Stephanie Walter
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Assistant Director: Lauren Miller
TACT General Manager: Cathy Bencivenga
Props: Lauren Madden
Press & Publicity: O&M Co.
Sound Design: Stephen Kunken
Costume Design: Haley Lieberman
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Scenic Design: Brett J. Banakis

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT)
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 95 Minutes, no intermission

Closed: November 20, 2011

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