July 2, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Children is the title of the early A. R. Gurney play that has opened the season at Williamstown Theatre Festival, but the play is dominated, not by the children and grandchildren (off-stage and on) but by the character the program lists only as Mother.
Judith Light is outstanding as the lead character, taking quiet command from her first entrance on, and, as the play continues, developing and enhancing it until its conclusion, in which she resoundingly dominates.
The 90 minute play, without intermission, is set on the terrace of a large old two-story summer home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Obviously it has been in the family for years, a place returned to every summer, as it is returned to this 1970s 4th of July.
The setting, designed by James Noone, is an idyllic one with a weather-beaten house and flower-bedecked terrace. Great bushes and trees hide the tennis courts (decaying) and the beach beyond where the father of the family always swam naked, leaving his bathrobe on the beach.
The returning children bring much baggage with them, spouses, and many grandchildren who populate the off-stage areas and far outnumber the persons we see on the stage.
Those we do see include Barbara (Katie Finneran), a daughter whose marriage has ended in divorce and who admits that every summer since she was a young girl she has carried on an affair with the (originally) Italian gardener, who now is a big real estate developer. At the moment she seems to have interest only in slipping off for quick clutches in his parked van.
More importantly, we also see Randy (James Waterston), the eldest son, who probably loves the site itself more than any of the other children. He has arrived this summer to bewail the erosion of the tennis court, which has faltered as much as his marriage to Jane (Mary Bacon) seems to have. She is the mother of some of the unseen upstairs children. Most importantly, all his life Randy has vied with his un-seen brother Pokey, baby of the family. Their rivalry is a second vital thread in the plot.
Pokey (though an off-stage character) figures largely in the plot. He has gone further from the nest, become a successful Washington lawyer, has a Jewish wife, and fathered a batch of children who, when they arrive, shock with their offensive language and drinking of coke to say nothing of setting off the fire-crackers early.
For Pokey, absent from the scene since the father’s death, is a dominator, and when the seemingly quiet contained mother calmly announced her intention to marry “Uncle Bill” in September, Pokey is on the scene to prove that by doing so, she will forfeit the estate to the children. He, after all, has written the will and has held on to it. He has also possessively held onto his father’s “day books” that recorded competitions in grades and sports. He is a scary character, at best.
King Lear threads suddenly emerge in a script too full of Chekhovian characters (each with off-stage lives) as well as ones from Cheever short stories, with Gurney’s additions.
It is a tribute to Gurney that the on-stage characters, and very especially the dynamically and skillfully acted role of the mother, and to a lesser extent by Randy, (whose final exit in the play says much in terms of his lack of attire) make all this work. And it does work, witnessed by the repeated curtain calls for Judith Light and then cast as a whole.
As a reviewer I found this play hard to describe with almost too much plot in so short a time. Gurney has gone on to write more significant plays; indeed he has had nine productions at the Williamtown Theatre Festival. This is a rewarding play, if not Gurney’s greatest one. And it is well worth seeing in this splendid production, under the fine direction of John Tillinger who has directed other Gurney scripts over the years and is sensitive to his nuances.
The ending I have deliberately avoided describing, leaving future audiences to be delighted with it for themselves.