Off the Main Road,by William Inge. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"No one wants to brave things out on this planet any more."
"What rapture!"There's a phrase that no one would write today and yet it speaks volumes to a modern audience when uttered by Kyra Sedgwick as Faye Bennet Conroy Garrit. Faye is on the run from an abusive husband, hiding out in a rent-a-cabin resort about 20 miles outside of St. Louis with her high school age daughter from her first marriage. She hasn't run very far or very hard and her hideout is one that anyone can find wihout too much trouble. Her husband does that by waiting for Faye's mother to come on the run to help her much married daughter. We're in the world of William Inge who has had other abused women take a run, or consider it.
The author of "Picnic" and "Come Back, Little Sheba," "The Stripper" and "Bus Stop" and the film "Splendor in the Grass" knows about abusive men and desperate women. In the 1950s and 1960s he wrote them so well that he produced one Broadway hit play after another. That he isn't as well remembered today as his contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller is more a matter of numbers and a well-contained private life than it is the quality of his work. He was as important and as powerful as the others, but he felt the need to hide himself away. At age 60 he died leaving this play, "Off the Main Road," unproduced and unpublished, languishing away until five years ago when its presence was made known by his estate. Now, on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it is getting its world premiere production. It's about time!
A cast of eleven players is bringing to life what may have been Inge's most personal and revealing play. Set in 1966 it is about entrapment. Faye and her daughter Julia and even Faye's mother, Mrs. Bennet, are all trapped in the confines of anticipated lifestyles and living conditions. Jimmy Woodford, Faye's oldest friend, is also trapped, his inherent qualities limiting his possibilities. Her husband, former ball-player Manny Garrit is trapped within the hideous walls of his fury and his jealousy. Gino, the taxi-driver, is caught in a mesh of intrigue surrounding his animal instincts and his desire for fun. When so many people, trapped in so many ways and in so many containers, are placed within reach of one another something has to give and it does in this play.
Inge was always a master of the English language and in this play he is on top of his game. It is a talky play and the talk is revelatory. Even as characters hold back they reveal more than they realize. Director Evan Cabnet risks censure by letting the conversations proceed without counterpoints, without much physical wear and tear, without anything to distract the people on stage from one another or holding the audience at arm's length. He presents Inge's sense of immediacy just as Inge has written it. It's a risk and a challenge and it pays off in sweet, realistic drama, an oxymoron that makes a world of sense during the two hours of this play.
Sedgwick is wonderful in the role of Faye. She knows how to bring tension to just beneath the surface and hold it there while she smiles, and chatters, and sits and rises. She speaks the language of living while her body speaks the language of lust. She moves through entanglements with a peculiar clarity and directness. Her performance is the central chimney of the house Inge has built, holding together all of the outlying elements he writes about. Or, in a word, she is wonderful.
As her mother, a St. Louis socialite, a snob with a snoopy disposition, Estelle Parsons delivers a knock-out performance looking like a glamrous Thelma Ritter, sounding like an overstated Audrey Totter. She dresses well, moves well, is exact in her depiction of motherly love and grandmotherly love, two very different degrees of the same emotion. She is her daughter's equal thinking herself the better of the two. It is easy to understand why their fights always end in friendship. Another great performance by Parsons.
Becky Ann Baker delivers a very sound and stable character as the landlady. She puts aside her usual voice and body and becomes a fine person as Mrs. Burns, a middle-class, sober woman who helps where she can and does what she must. Her son, Victor, is beautifully and rather sensitively played by Daniel Sharman. Mary Wiseman does a fine job as Julia, Faye's daughter. She has many opportunities to portray the difficult moments in a teen-ager's life and she does it so well she constantly wins our sympathy.
Manny, the husband, is given a rousing, boisterous and frightening portrayal by Jeremy Davidson. Manny's actions are never what we hear in his voice. Even when violence wins the moment there is that fascinating dichotomy in the character and that is Davidson's art. Aaron Costa Ganis plays Gino. He also delivers an impressive character to the stage. His second scene is sexy and socially psychotic and Ganis never moves to the extremes here, but plays that middle ground with subtlety and charm. It makes for a chilling, yet rapturous, conclusion to the first act.
Representing the author on stage is Howard W. Overshown in the role of Jimmy Woodford. Jimmy is the kind of friend every woman wants and Faye has an especial need for at this point in her life. He is everything she cannot have but wishes was hers. He is his own person and knows what his effect is on his best friend, Faye. It is a lovely performance and it helps to define the real problems in Faye's manner of addressing her choices. Overshown and Sedgwick make excellent scene-partners here.
The production is lavish and lovely and defines place and time nicely. This includes the excellent set by Takeshi Kata, the perfect period costumes by Paloma Young and the sometimes remarkable lighting designed by Ben Stanton. Thomas Schall has done a very nice job with the fight choreography.
In the end it is the work of Evan Cabnet directing the excellent script by William Inge that makes this all work. Inge was not a broad-stroke author, but a pointilist painter of the human condition. Cabnet has respected that and the result is an evening of theater that expands the canon of fascinating works from the mind of one of our most incredibly under-appreciated playwrights. Conclusion: if theater means anything to you, you must see this production.
Kyra Sedgwick as Faye; photo: WTF Publicity
Off the Main Road plays through July 19 on the Main Stage of the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.