There are all sorts of obsessions. In Harold Pinter's 1964 play "The Homecoming" six people are obsessed with goals. No two are stuck on the same thing. Teddy, the eldest son is caught in his dream of family and the rightness of the order of things. "We have to maintain intellectual equilibrium," he says but no one else pays much attention to this philosophy professor. His wife, Ruth, concentrates on her roots in the local area and returns to them time and again with results that surprise no one, including her. Teddy's father, Max, is obsessed with women and their place in the greater scheme of things, at one moment reviling his dead wife as a tramp and at the next moment revering her for her saintly ways. Max's brother, Sam, cannot get over his single-blessedness, his sister-in-law's charms, or his brother's indifferent demands. Lenny, Max's second son, finds himself the most fascinating creature on God's earth and uses his professional status as a whore-monger to celebrate his personal achievements. The baby of the family, Joey, is obsessed with his boxing career until he meets Ruth and then his total concentration alters accordingly. As Teddy says, "...maintain intellectual equilibrium." Everyone tries, and no one succeeds.
Harold Pinter has layered his characters accordingly. It is impossible to guess with much accuracy which direction any of these folks will take when an impulse strikes. They are middleclass mollusks sucking their shells tenaciously on to the side of the road from which they hail. Pinter doesn't ask that we identify with them, just that we identify them by the end of his play, a task that seems almost too much to ask of an audience. They are less fascinating than intriguing, less human than animal. This is a visceral experience, well written, very well directed and perfectly acted in the current production in Stockbridge, MA presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group.
Joey Collins is superbly slimy, smarmy and smooth as Lenny. From his first verbal play with his father in which he reviles the older man for being who he is through his final moment encompassing his human puppets in a soft, embrace which shows his own vulnerability, he plays Lenny for all he is worth. Lenny in his hands is curiously attractive and repellent at the same time. Pinter has laid out in this character the top-rung of the lowest of the low and Collins brings that to vibrant life. Everyone is Lenny's victim. Collins plays that with a tenderness that puts the lie to family relationships.
Tara Franklin is essentially the wrong actress for Ruth, so it is a marvelous revelation to watch her bring a dark and forbidding truth to the role. Her wife-mother-whore combination is subtle and sweet and so insidiously controlling that she sends chills through the audience. She uses her upright stiffness so well that when she contorts into a living reptillian seductress we are left confused and exhausted by her transition. Like the Biblical Ruth who pledged to follow her husband, his mother and finally the man she meets, this one pledges herself to follow her husband, then to follow her husband's family and ultimately to follow who knows what. This excellent actress exceeds any earlier achievements with the role of Ruth. She is setting the barre very high for future work.
John Rothman plays Uncle Sam with a quiet attitude and an even quieter response mechanism. He is so acceptably ordinary, most of the time, that when he breaks into beautiful confession with Teddy, when he falls into a fit of passionate disquietude, he surprises us with his power. Rothman is in complete control throughout the evening. As an actor he knows exactly what he needs to do in order to make his lines comforting and hurtful. Rothman gives a moving and compelling performance in this play.
David Barlow plays Teddy as the nicest man on earth, intelligent and compassionate, low-key and in love. His Teddy clearly loves the family and his sons in America and his work and his obsessions with order. This hero remains a hero only through the interpretation of the actor for Teddy is flawed and unlikeable really, but not in this production. Barlow infuses more humanity into the role than Pinter intended and in this ensemble that choice seems to work nicely for we are truly shocked by his unexplainable choices. Where the other actors in this production have stuck very close to the seeming intentions of the playwright, Barlow has brought a touch of Shirley Temple optimism to the play which is doable in this Pinter play but not usually considered.
John Rothman, Rocco Sisto; photo: Michelle McGrady
Joey Collins, David Barlow; photo: Michelle McGrady
Young Joey is played by the one non-pro in the company, Ryan Morsbach, who manages to make physical obsession a playable item in ways that are mesmerizing. It is hard, sometimes, to take your eyes off of this actor who often simply stands or sits in one place and rarely utters a word. His physicalality provides an open key-hole for the others on stage. They focus through him and he opens up slowly, his hidden hinges squealing as he brings himself to active life.
Rocco Sisto plays Max, the patriarch of this family, a retired butcher, with all of the gusto and magnificence of a Doge of Venice. When he speaks, even when his authority is ignored, he is in command of the room. He plays the wistful moments with a sense of humor that keeps the laughs at a minimum while always amusing his onlookers. The heavier, revelatory speeches are given an equal dose of creative expression, often getting laughs where they're not anticipated. Sisto's deep voice is perfect for Max. It provides a gravitas that the lines don't always demand. In this role he is as perfectly cast an actor as one could wish.
Eric Hill has done a marvelous job with this very difficult play. Grasping the author's intentions in this one is a constant challenge and Hill seems to be up to it. He has provided answers long withheld here to the ambiguities contained in Pinter's script. Reid Thompson's quirky set is as obfuscating as it is over-compensating. What it gives us is people and not place and that's an amazing achievement for a designer. David Murin's costumes are excellent, though not especially innovative. Solomon Weisbard's lighting design is moody and as fine a job as could be brought into this set and this play. J Hagenbuckle does a very nice job with sound and music.
I have always found "The Homecoming" to be an intriguing and confusing play. "There's no need to be nervous. There's no need," Teddy says to Ruth near the top of the first act. There is definitely a need here to be nervous, to play attention and to watch and listen hard from beginning to end. Not an easy evening of entertainment, this is a play that sets out to make you question what you know about morality, about friendship, marriage, family and several of the seven deadly sins. At the end of your visit to this North London home, you may well question all of your own decisions in life. Folks, asking the question is never a bad thing, and this play tells you just that.
The Homecoming plays at the Unicorn Theater's Larry Vaber Stage on the BTG's Stockbridge Campus, on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA through October 25. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go online at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.