Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
This summer is just deja vue all over again. First the parallels between “Glimmer Brothers” (WTF-Nikos) and “Shoot the Piano Player” (BTF-Unicorn); and now the parallels between “November” (Oldcastle) and “The Batting Cage” (BTF-MainStage). In the case of the latter two shows both playwrights started with the premise of families reuniting for a funeral. Both families feature a pair of fraternal twins and a sister who acts as the pillar of the family while secretly battling her own demons.
But where “November” attempted to make the 20th century the major character on the stage, Joan Ackermann’s “The Batting Cage” wisely brings the family front and center. It is much easier to care about people than the events surrounding them.
The Finlays are a predominately female clan. Although we assume there is or was a father in the picture he is never mentioned. The older sister Julianna (Linda Gehringer) has recently divorced her husband Carl, and the other two daughters, the twins Wilson (Melissa Leo) and Morgan, never married. It is Morgan’s death from the diabetes she suffered from childhood that brings Julianna and Wilson, and eventually their mother Peg (Beth Dixon) to a Holiday Inn in St. Augustine, Florida. While Juliana and Wilson are on vacation together, they are at the ocean for the purpose of scattering Morgan’s ashes at sea – only the suitcase containing those ashes is missing.
The deceased Morgan is absolutely at the center of this show, and it concludes with the remaining Finlay women gathered to fulfill her final wishes while a spotlight lingers on the one empty chair. While the play is achingly funny, it is centered on grief and grieving. Wilson is practically catatonic for the first few days as she mourns the sister who was her companion from the womb, while Julianna babbles away and fills her days with shopping and sightseeing trying to fill the void left in her life by the loss of her marriage and her sister. Their grief is not resolved because a loss that great never leaves you, but they do come to understand themselves, each other, and their family better in ten days of their lives Ackermann allows us to see.
It is brave of the BTF to produce the work of a local playwright as part of their four play Main Stage season. And it is a gamble that pays off. Ackermann is a dramatic voice that deserves to be heard. It is refreshing to see a play by a woman, about women on the main stage of one of the county’s major theatres. This is a thoroghly enjoyable show, beautifully directed by Mark Nelson.
I cannot imagine any two actresses better suited to Ackermann’s characters than Gehringer and Leo. Both women have had long successful careers on stage and television. Gehringer is probably best remembered as the former stripper Fontana Beaujolais who gave birth to her first child in a pit filled with colored balls at a Discovery Zone-type arcade on the TV show “Evening Shade”. She is good at playing very off-beat women who are simultaneously completely real. Her Julianna carries much of the first act of this show and wins our hearts doing it.
Leo is good at playing hard edged in-your-face women. Her Wilson is a brilliant chemical engineer who owns ten of the same Eddie Bauer shirts and only one pair of shorts. She can do complex logic and math problems rapidly in her head, and she sure can hit a baseball, but she can barely communicate with the real world.
John Hawkinson has a few nice comic turns as Bobby the bellhop, and various other less identifiable men who graze the sisters vacation and period of mourning. And Beth Dixon is fine as the mother who arrives to bring the play and Morgan’s death to closure.
Gary M. English has designed the quintessential Holiday Inn double room. Shortly after she arrives Julianna exclaims, “Who chooses hotel room decor and what are their qualifications?” Whatever they are, English knows how to mimic them beautifully.
“The Batting Cage” runs through August 14 on the Main Stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999