Children by A.R. Gurney. Directed by John Tillinger.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
James Waterston and Katie Finneran; photo provided
Judith Light as Mother; photo provided
"We have to go through these ritual cleansings."
I admire the work of A.R. Gurney; I donít feel much as I listen to his well-heeled characters say whatís minimally in their minor hearts, but I admire the major craft and talent it takes to get them so perfectly down on paper and to give them life on a stage. The playwright's notes in the program of the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís production of his early play, "Children," reveals what may well be an apocryphal tale. Even so, it is telling. A New York producer considering a production of this play suggested that Gurney should pay "for earphones and simultaneous translations for New Yorkís Jewish audiences." In a way, thatís the problem.
Translation of the language is not necessary. Gurney uses the English language, as it is spoken in the northeast, beautifully. He gets the cultural class distinctions just right. Where translation is needed is not in the spoken language. It is in the thought processes that produce the spoken words.
In this play there are four people speaking almost constantly while offstage another three living adults (Pokie, Miriam and Artie) are spoken of, and something like ten children are referred to, and a baby-sitter makes an unseen, unheard appearance and so does a dead man, the father of the adult children on stage.
This long dead (about five years) pater is part of the problem. He is both missed and not missed by everyone on stage and their constant references to him tell us very little about him or his relationship to any of them. We donít know much about how the three visible children felt about him; we learn that his wife liked him enough to allow him to father three children.
We donít ever learn the truth, the whole truth, about "Motherís" real love life or her faked love life, if love life is even the proper term for her behavior with her husband and with her "true love." We donít see the boyfriend of the daughter, Barbara. We only know that mom suspects that after fifteen years or so in this affair, he canít be trusted, that his motives are suspect. We never quite understand why her son and daughter-in-law seem to barely tolerate each other except when he makes love to her and then we can only guess her reaction because we never really get to see it. And the prodigal son who never really appears - heís always somewhere else in the summer beach cottage where they all meet for a fourth of July celebration - seems to be motivating the others but we donít really know why; we have to guess and our guesses are probably correct. Yes. They are.
So much that that we should be seeing happens off-stage in this play. So much of what we should know seems to be kept in secret places, never spoken of, never revealed.
It is this odd remove that Gurney gives to his characters that makes them difficult for us, not the language. I am told that WASPs are like this. I know many and Iíve seen one or two actually exhibit emotions. These people pretend to exhibit them. They throw things. They pout. They are only playing the games of emotions, but they are not relating to anyone.
Katie Finneran is Barbara, a recent divorcee who wants to live in the summer house her family has owned for over eighty years. The actress has got this woman down perfectly. She has no guilt, no shame, no pity. She has needs, but she cannot share them with anyone, not even the boyfriend who is, after all, Catholic. Finneran knows how to hold her head, how to cock an eyebrow, how to gesture with three fingers. She does it all very well, but like the others, she never lets us approach and find out who Barbara really is.
Mary Bacon plays Jane, Barbaraís sister-in-law. Her character lets us come the closest here and Bacon plays the ingrained charm her character possesses for all itís worth. She is pert, petite and pretty enough to catch our eyes and ears but again Gurney shoves us away, even when Jane is confessing her feelings, something the others rarely do.
In fact, Mother, played brilliantly by Judith Light, talks about feelings often, her own, naturally and no one elseís. She does concede that her children do have feelings, but she has never discovered what they are or whether they are of any importance. Mother is the sort of person who makes the women played, late in her career, by Bette Davis seem like the essence of warmth and mother-love. "What fun!" she announces as she tells Barbara and her brother Randy, that their sibling, Pokie, is paying a late, unannounced visit. You can almost hear Davis puffing on a cigarette pronouncing those two syllables with restraint and clipped pronunciation.
Light is marvelous in this role. Her rants and ravings in the last scene are just marvels of restraint and muted - something - anger? lust? amusement? disappointment? It is hard to know exactly where any of her speeches are coming from (other than Boston by her accent). Her character abuses her son Randy while admonishing him to serve her needs. Light plays the opposites in this woman with an uncomfortable familiarity. She is giving a shatteringly correct performance, but of course, that is what WASPs do. Isnít it?
The son, Randy, is played very nicely by James Waterston, although at times he comes very close to expressing an emotion other than anger or lust. He almost overrode the dialogue with honest passion. He nearly quashed the impulse to take on a life that interfaced with others. He is the dangerous actor in the company, his own enthusiasm showing a bit too much to suit the playwright, I am sure.
James Nooneís summerhouse back yard was realistic and lovely, a jewel box of a setting for the semi-animated goings-on of this family. Jane Greenwoodís costumes are almost too no-time to define the 1970s, attractive but non-specific. Rui Rita lights the one-day procession of the playís time-line interestingly. This is a 90-minute one act play, by the way, so discreetly prepare, in the manner of a true WASP, and no complaining.
John Tillinger has a knack for keeping these sorts of plays interesting to watch. This time around he keeps us focused nicely as his people vie for the upperclass hands of suitors no one can name. Bill, Artie, Dad, it's all one and the same, and Tillinger lets us dream a bit of all of these men who keep being mentioned, talked about and thought of. When he shows us an image of Pokie, it is almost too much to bear.
If this family was only waiting for Godot, weíd at least know they had a goal. In "Children" the only thing that really happens is that Mother lets the playday end with things much as they were they were at the start. She still owns her house. She is still unmarried. She is still not on speaking terms with her child. Her rationale for these things may be different, but the effect is the same. The only real difference is her dress: appropriately black and white for those are the range of colors in the emotional lives of these people.
With a 35 year old play you have to give itís people what they require. Tillinger and company have done that admirably. WASPs may adore it; I donít know if they do that, really. I found it fascinating but just a bit too arms-distance for my taste; even if the wittiness is accessible, the humanity is not.
Children plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 12. The theater is located within the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street (Route 2) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. For schedules, prices and ticket information call 413-597-3400.