Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2000
This show is a surprise. The WTF announced that they were going to do it, and then that they weren’t doing it. Even the tickets were printed with the name of the other show they had announced before they changed their minds AGAIN and decided to mount “Ancestral Voices” after all.
And it was a surprise that I got to see it at all, so I hadn’t really given it much thought. It took me halfway through the show to remember that A.R. Gurney went by the name of Pete and not Bill (why did I want him to be Bill??) But this was a very pleasant surprise and I had the great good fortune to see the show with a dear old friend of mine who had grown-up in Buffalo, NY with A.R. Gurney’s parents. Since this show is a memory play about A.R. Gurney’s parents and his own childhood in Buffalo in the years 1938-1942, this was fortunate indeed.
If you are reading the review having clicked through from the Weston Playhouse link on my homepage, I must explain a bit about the show and why a review of one production will he helpful to you if you choose to see the other (The WTF mounted the show from July 12-23, and Weston is staging it July 27-29 and August 3-6.) Weston has carefully called this a “choral reading” and is charging less for it than they do for their regular main stage productions. The WTF offers no explanation of the nature of the work and charges exactly the same as it does for all of its Nikos Stage productions.
Gurney has is alter-ego Eddie (Josh Hamilton) stand up and explain at the very beginning that he, the author, wanted this to be a play but that it “went too many places” for the stage. Other people wanted it to be a book, but the characters “kept wanting to talk”. And so the end result is exactly what Weston calls it – a choral reading. Five actors, sitting in chairs on a bare stage “reading” from scripts. They have memorized their lines and rehearsed to a certain extent, but there is no set and no face to face interaction between the characters. They are “in costume” to the extent that the clothes they are wearing are suitable for their characters. At least this is how the WTF is offering it to us.
And it worked beautifully because the WTF assembled a very, very fine group of actors. It was a real treat to see and hear these five folks present this story as fully as they did with as minimal a production as they were given. Acting is in the voice and the face and the body, and each one of these performers made their characters real and complete. When I list their names you will know many of them: Marian Seldes as grandma Madeline and as the unfortunately named Fanny Mitchell; Michael Gross as father Harvey; Mary Beth Piel as mother Jane; and Richard Easton as grandpa Ed and “Uncle” Roger; along with Hamilton as young Eddie, the son and grandson.
I have heard Gurney described as the voice of WASP America, and, as a WASP through and through I can tell you that he certainly described a world that I kew, at least through stories told me by my parents. Grocery stores that delivered, clubs that excluded Jews and Catholics (and God forbid your skin should be a different color!), and cabins in the Adirondacks. Through my friend I discovered that Gurney had done very little to veil the autobiographical nature of the tale. The clubs and the movie palace and even the names of some of the earlier generations of Gurney’s were real.
This is a gentle tale of the final years in the lives of Eddie’s grandparents. His grandmother divorces his grandfather to marry an old flame, another Buffalo upper class fellow with whom they grew up. The second marriage is not a success, the grandfather never recovers, the whole of Buffalo relishes the scandal, and Eddie finds his comfortable world very gently rocked by it all. It is a small story, quietly and beautifully told.
It was all so very nice and so nicely done that I was only slightly annoyed that I wasn’t getting to see a “real play”. A gentleman a few seats away snored lightly through most of it. One person walked out after about an hour. But no one really had the chutspa to say “Hey wait, we paid to see a SHOW!” At least those of you who see it in Weston will know what you are getting.
“Ancestral Voices” runs through July 23 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs an hour and a half with no intermission. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000