"You don’t think this is anything serious, do you?"
Sometimes you just know a play too well. Then you meet a new play and it makes you think of that old play, the one you know so well. After a while you find you miss the old play and you notice that it keeps coming to mind. You try to block it out so you can come fresh and unprejudiced to the new one, but it just won’t let go of your imagination.
That was one half of the experience that I had at the Unicorn Theatre’s production of a relatively new play, Sick, by Zayd Dohrn. The other half was the actual appreciation of the new work, "Sick," in spite of the commonalities and coincidences with "The Glass Menagerie," last seen in this same theater, and even with some of the same cast.
Sidney, or Dad, brings home a gentleman caller, Jim (the same name as the Gentleman Caller, by the way in the Tennessee Williams play), a young poet, to meet his family. Maxine, Sidney’s wife, is clad in white, moves mysteriously through the apartment and only speaks in mini-monologues (sometimes only a line, but they make their point). She is the principal caregiver and home-school teacher (like Amanda Wingfield - oh, my) to her sickly daughter Sarah (shades of Laura) and her even sicklier son (Tom in the Williams play, too sick to do much but go to movies, smoke and ignore the realities of life) Davey. The presence of the unexpected visitor causes havoc, or allows it anyway and what is fragile (like a glass unicorn) breaks. Jim cannot put right what has gone wrong, even though he tries to help and the girl, daughter, Laura figure is unable to break out of her mother’s tightly wrapped shell.
Two years ago I wrote the following: "The Gentleman Caller, an obsession for Amanda, is played by Greg Keller whose pleasant face, body and voice make him an easy obsession for Laura and for Tom as well. He is charm personified. He is utterly likeable. The entire Wingfield family seems to be in love with this man, at least for an hour or so. Keller is an affable, likeable dinner guest, well cast in this role and nicely played, right down to his awkward exit from their lives." Nothing much has changed about Greg Keller’s performance in this new, seminal role right down to the forced, awkward exit.
Keller’s Jim is still pretty much a sudden obsession for Sarah and Davey. He is still charming and likeable. His character stays to help clean up a mess created by Sidney when there is no reason for him to stay at all. Everyone in this trap of a rent-controlled apartment seems to be enchanted by Jim including suspicious and wary Maxine. Keller still plays a dinner guest - although he never gets any dinner in this play and, once again, he is perfectly well cast in this role. Keller does extremely well with the soft moments, but there is even a cheery ring in his performance when there is a bit of bluster and embarrassment in what he has to portray.
Rebecca Brooksher shines in the role of Sarah. She has a disposition that lends itself to the quirkiness here. Her version of Laura is a sickly girl with a shot at breaking through the family obsession with health and protection (Mom is all for it; Dad is against it). Brooksher understands verve and its difference from vim or vigor. She gets the character just right all of the time and her attempt to break out of the ugly protective coating that surrounds her is beautifully handled, no tears, no high dudgeon, but just sincerity and honesty holding the moment.
Her brother is played with a curious internal cruelty by Ryan Spahn. As the one member of the family who might well be ill rather than a tool for Maxine to afford an over-protective strong-arm hold, Spahn gives out with the appropriate coughs, sputters, gestures and looks. There is something, though, that keeps the sympathy levels low in his case. He has two fits and the one that ends act one is superb. However, Spahn knows when to soft peddle the illness factor and when to play the idiot. He does it appropriately and there is never too much of one thing and too little of the other in his work here. He has a final gesture that tells us everything we need to know, if we see it. Director David Auburn has, unfortunately, focused most of our attention on another actor on another part of the stage. Still, catching the change in Spahn’s Davey is the key to all the facts and fictions contained in this play.
Lisa Emery plays Maxine. Hers is one of the hardest characters to like. She is obsessive and focuses entirely on one thing at a time. When she becomes distracted, Emery moves her into the realm of the near-psychotic: there are head turns, twitches, muscle retractions in neck and arms, her feet seem to change shape. She is like a manic, younger Marian Seldes at moments, and then she becomes Joan Allen. Her chameleon portrayal of Maxine is a fascinator. It is inescapable.
Michel Gill is Sidney. His utter exuberance and high-end enthusiasm is a thrilling contrast to the rest of the family. Where they crawl he strides and where they cringe and cower he lopes and grapples with life. Gill is terrific here. He brings the bricks to life on this set. He takes the staircase three treads at a time and makes it look graceful. He plays a poet and college professor who posseses a cynical air about his family. He is so believable in the role he could be this man rather than an actor playing Sidney.
Together this ensemble really does justice to this play. Director Auburn has had the luck of the casting and has shepherded this flock of actors into the right stalls. The play sets and then holds its pace, but nothing is lost. The director has given ample room for the playwright’s voice to call the roadside mileage counters.
The scenic designer R. Michael Miller has provided a perfect set. This one element speaks volumes. Wade Laboissonniere understands the need for direct image and simplicity in the costumes. Dan Kotlowitz has lighted the production well with an unreal realism. Nothing can be hidden under his bright lights and therefore nothing is hidden.
This modern take on the family unit that Williams wrote so beautifully so long ago is a triumph in the hands of Zayd Dohrn. I have a few quibbles about moments in the script that seemed unnecessary, even superfluous. This mother needs no tragic city disaster to focus her tragic sensibilities. This son needs no excuses for his behavior. And Father may know best but in this play he doesn’t really know he knows it. If there’s a tragedy buried in the comedy that would be it.
I thought a play named "Sick," and a comedy at that, was the wrong way to end a season of fascinating marvels at this theater, but I was wrong. This is a good way to go out: in glory.
Greg Keller and Rebecca Brooksher; photo: Jaime Davidson
Brooksher, Ryan Spahn, Michel Gill; photo: Jaime Davidson
Lisa Emery; photo: Jaime Davidson
Sick plays at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through September 6. For tickets and information call the box office at 413- 298-5576.