Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What I Did Last Summer **

For the second revival in their A.R. Gurney residency, Signature Theatre has chosen this semi-autobiographical memory play from 1981. Charlie (Noah Galvin), the 14-year-old Gurney stand-in, recalls the Summer of 1945 when his father was away at war in the Pacific and his mother Grace (Carolyn McKormick) was trying valiantly to hold their WASP family together in his absence. Charlie, his mother and his older sister Elsie (Kate McGonigle) are spending the summer at their vacation home on the Canadian side of Lake Erie not far from Buffalo. Charlie and Ted (Pico Alexander), a townie two years his senior, both like to spend time with Bonny (Juliet Brett), a girl near their age but much wiser. The rebellious Charlie answers a “Help Wanted” ad placed by the local outcast Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen). A free spirit, she has abandoned her WASP upbringing to live a hermit-like existence on the lakeside property left her by her former lover. She claims to see artistic potential in Charlie and gives him art lessons after his chores are done. He shows no aptitude for painting, sculpture, macrame or anything else she tries to teach him. She also fills his head with anti-establishment socialistic ideas. After one argument too many with his mother, Charlie flees home and moves into Anna’s barn. There is a battle for Charlie’s soul between Anna and Grace who, it turns out, had her own experiences with Anna 20 years prior. Clumsy plot devices intrude and the ending is less than satisfactory. Director Jim Simpson has chosen to introduce a drummer (Dan Weiner) to punctuate the action, a needless distraction. Michael Yeargan’s minimalist set is enhanced by John Narun’s projections of typed characters filling the back wall with stage directions. Claudia Brown's costumes are attractive and appropriate. All the characters save one address the audience to ponder whether the play is really about them. Despite the fine cast (although I found Galvin a bit too hyperactive) and a snazzy production, the play simply did not engage me. So far, the Gurney residency has been underwhelming. “The Wayside Motor Inn” showed him in his Ayckbourn mode and this play has echoes of Wilder. Let’s hope that next season’s Gurney premiere will salvage the residency and display more of the characteristics that made me a Gurney fan. Running time: two hours including intermission.

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