I SING THE THEATER ELECTRIC
Any mental notes I had regarding I Never Sang For My Father at The McCadden Place Theatre disappeared just after curtain call. I was haunted by thoughts of my own father, who passed away several years ago; vivid images, conversations and arguments came rushing back to me with bemusement – am I turning into the man with whom I had such a contentious relationship? My theatrer companion was so overwhelmed by the similarities between the play and his own relationship with his recently departed dad that he simply broke down and cried.
Robert Anderson’s 1968 memory play focuses on Gene, a 40-year-old widower who has decided to remarry and relocate across the country in California. This decision will prompt a visit to his parents in New York, both of whom are in poor health; but sickness, death, and questions regarding his elder parents’ care only serve to exacerbate an already unwieldy relationship with his emotionally stunted father, Tom. Gene (John Sloan) is so muted around Tom (Philip Baker Hall) that he finds it difficult to even look him in the eye, whereas his energetic, fun-loving mother Margaret (Anne Gee Byrd) is a great comfort. The two parents serve to strain the son by putting him in the middle of their affairs.
Watching Mr. Sloan may frustrate those sons in the audience who would rather the actor clench his jaws and shake his fists to the sky, but Mr. Sloan is a very wise, gentle and vulnerable actor who does not wear his heart on his sleeve; his casual observation of his father only belies the aggravation and deep wounds that simmer like a pot of water on low heat. Ms. Byrd, after back-to-back triumphs in Autumn Garden and Four Places last year, proves that she can do no wrong: shimmering and high-spirited, the actress deftly brings to life a woman who keeps her regret in check; her wearied acceptance of the volatile man she married is heartbreaking.
But it is Mr. Hall who presents the performance of this or any other year. It is a staggering, humbling privilege to witness his majesty as he roars and chews his lines with the fierce conviction of a lion staunchly defending his right to exist. Hall’s snappish frustration, his brilliant rendering of the onset of Alzheimer’s, his ferociousness and determined enmity, all fashion Tom into a most piteous man. It is a magical performance of the highest caliber, and woe to the person who reads this review and then misses Hall’s performance.
Dee Ann Newkirk shines among this formidable cast as Gene’s feisty sister Alice, who returns home after a long absence with her own ideas about how to handle dad. Tim Halligan is splendid in the small role of Dr. Mayberry; John Combs, Brittani Ebert, Paul Messinger and Chelsea Povall round out the cast.
With Gene as our narrator, Mr. Anderson’s play is not filled with the poetry and flamboyant descriptives we might find in the memory plays of Pinter or Williams, yet he establishes family dynamics that are so pure and so real that we are compelled to look away from the painful state of affairs caused by the inability to communicate across generations. Anderson neither exaggerates plot nor character in order to appeal to our emotions; he simply writes from the heart.
The design, including projected images, is unremarkable – this is a tiny space on a limited budget – and, somehow, it feels completely unnecessary to attempt a stylistic reconstruction of 1968, but director Cameron Watson clearly had something else in mind: elegant acting, truthfulness, and integrity of spirit.
This is the first outing for The New American Theatre (formerly Circus Theatricals) and it’s obvious that producers Jack Stehlin and Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin are a nurturing presence. Support I Never Sang For My Father, for it is a reminder of the generous spirit of theatre folk who are not interested in self-aggrandizement, but in theatre as an art form that brings the community together.
photos by Daniel G. Lam
I Never Sang For My Father
New American Theatre
1157 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood
ends on May 22, 2011
EXTENDED to June 19, 2011
for tickets, call 310.701.0788 or visit New American Group