by Gail M. Burns, August 2006

As a critic, I can never leave a show early, nor do I often feel inclined to do so, but I have to admit that I contemplated making an early escape during the intermission of Auntie and Me. Playwright Morris Panych has created two thoroughly unpleasant characters and placed them in a distasteful situation. Did I really want to spend another hour in their company? I knew what I wanted to write, and it wasn’t going to be a good review.

“What could possibly happen in the second half that would change my mind?” I asked myself.

Well, something did happen in the second half that changed my mind about this play completely. I cannot tell you what it is, but I can tell you that you should not, under any circumstances, leave this show at intermission. Either go or stay home, but don’t leave halfway through.

I am very glad that I did not have time to write this review on Friday because when I attended the Friday night performance of Engaging Shaw at Oldcastle I learned a new word that makes writing this review much easier. The word is Anagnoresis and Engaging Shaw author John Morogiello defines it thusly in his program notes:
“Anagnoresis is the name Aristole gave to the moment of supreme recognition or realization in Greek tragedy. It is the moment when Oedipus realizes that he is a murderer. It is the moment Othello realizes that Desdemona has been faithful. It is the moment when Buzz Lightyear realizes he is a toy.”

What happens to the character of Kemp in the second half of Auntie and Me is a true anagnoresis, and it changes his world and his life as completely as it changes Oedipus’s and Othello’s (I haven’t seen Toy Story so I can’t speak to Buzz Lightyear’s experience.) I am happy to say that he does not gouge his eyes out or commit suicide, this is a comedy, after all, instead he uses his anagnoresis to truly change the way he thinks and conducts his life. He does not magically become a paragon of virtue, but he genuinely learns from his experience.

Chester gives each of its seasons a theme and this year it is “Unexpected Alliances.” Auntie and Me is the fourth and final show of the season, and I have to say that the relationship here between Kemp and Grace is the most unexpected of the lot.

Kemp (Tim Donoghue) is an asexual transvestite bank clerk who leaves his entire, pitiful life behind and travels clear across the country to answer a letter from his elderly aunt, who he hasn’t seen in over thirty years, summoning him to her deathbed. Kemp dutifully, although belligerently, arrives, but Grace (Nancy E. Carroll) doesn’t die. In fact she barely speaks to him at all (Carroll utters only two words in the entire first half of the play) and we watch them endure each other’s company for an entire year before the anagnoresis occurs. Isolated in Grace’s run down house in a small northeastern city Kemp keeps up a running monologue of verbal abuse and unsought personal confessions which are so awful they’re funny, and vice versa.

I said it before and I’ll say it again, Kemp is not a nice person. His treatment of Grace borders on elder abuse, and his repeated attempts to murder her, although hilariously funny (wait until you see the Rube Goldberg contraption that he rigs up to offer her the choice between suicide by electrocution or by a massive blow to the head) are also uncomfortable to endure. Which is why, at intermission, pre-anagnoresis, I was contemplating a hasty retreat in order to write and warn you all not to go.

This causes me to ponder whether the play should be presented without an intermission. Panych has written it in very short scenes, sometimes merely seconds long, which keeps your interest aroused. I figure it would run about 100 minutes that way, which is a pretty long while to sit, and it means the theatre loses out on its income from concession sales, not to mention the wear and tear on the actors, but I think this show might be more effective if played straight through.

However in this production directed by Munson Hicks it is divided in two. Chester has imported this show intact, with Donoghue and Carroll, from the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, where it played to good reviews last year. I can see why. Both actors are skillful and as appealing as their characters and Panych’s writing will allow them to be. Carroll had moments when she was too cute for my taste, sitting stubbornly silent in her red cloche hat with her butterscotch pudding and her knitting. She never made Grace quite horrible enough in the first half, so that her reaction to Kemp’s anagnoresis and the scenes that follow are less poignant.

Donoghue really makes Kemp such an annoying lout that you cheer mightily when Grace conks and shocks him with his suicide machine (but he doesn’t die, damn it!) He simpers and flounces about, doing his wash, complaining about his dismal childhood and even more dismal adult life, plotting ways to off Grace, looking out the window to ridicule the one-legged man, the neighborhood children, and the old lady across the street who has nothing better to do than sit at her window all day watching him.

Having created this monster, Donoghue makes Kemp’s moment of anagnoresis one of true physical agony. He twists and flails as he realizes the truth and that truth does set him free.

Tony Andrea has designed a set that is a little too spacious to capture the claustrophobia of Grace’s upstairs bedroom. It is not clear whether Andrea designed this set specifically for the Chester stage or whether it too was imported from Lowell. If it was the spaciousness could be a result of the translation from one theatre to another. What a pity Michael Ostaszewski’s set for Two Rooms is over at the Consolati this week, retaining that cramped, asymmetrical floor-plan could have worked wonders for this show.

Jane Alois Stein’s costume design is likewise a little off. Things seem awfully clean. And why, after we see Kemp hanging out white wash that has clearly been stained pink by being washed with Grace’s red socks, does he not appear in the pink clothing later in the play?

All in all, this is a strong production of a truly unique play that is worth seeing for Donoghue’s performance alone. There are a great many laughs to be had, although nearly all of the early ones are groaners that you almost feel ashamed to laugh at, but that moment of anagnoresis…that is the best.

I would not take children under 13 to this show, especially if they have beloved elderly relatives in their life. And people who are currently caregivers for aged relations might also find much in this play hard to stomach. If I had had to see this show during the year my father was dying I am not sure whether I would have made me furiously angry or painfully guilty that I was enjoying the catharsis of laughing at a similar situation so much, but I have a feeling that if I had seen it that year, I would have left during intermission.

Auntie and Me runs August 16-27 at the Chester Theatre Company. The show runs two hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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