"Never Sang" at Spots: Parenting a Parent

July 20
10:08 PM 2008

SHOW INFORMATION: Through August 3; Fri – Sat at 8PM, Sun at 2PM.  Tickets and information: 410-752-1225 or www.spotlighters.org.


◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, 15 minutes, plus intermission.

Sometimes a play, no matter how wonderfully acted and thoughtfully directed, is a victim of its own excesses.  Such is the case with Robert Anderson's 1968 play, I Never Sang for My Father, which continues its run at Spotlighters Theatre.  Director Audra Mains and her cast of eight have created a finely detailed, thoroughly executed piece of theatre.  Ms. Mains clearly has an eye for staging and a wonderful sense of where this play has its strengths – the relationship between father and son, and on the family dynamic as a whole.  Several of the play's 18 scenes (over two acts) are almost like fine mini-dramas in and of themselves, and the final scenes of each act are especially taut and superbly acted.  It is the other scenes that really make the play drag, and unfortunately, bring the play to a screeching halt rather than a smooth build to an emotionally devastating and satisfying conclusion.  And the fault for this lies entirely with the play itself.

It becomes apparent relatively quickly, and without much fanfare, that Gene Garrison has a marvelous, close relationship with his aging and deteriorating mother, and an at-arms-length relationship with his single minded, somewhat pompous father.  It also becomes crystal clear early on that the unconditional approval and warmth he gets from his mother is all he wants from his father.  And that, of course, is not coming.  Several sections of dialogue are repeated verbatim multiple times – partly to show, I think, the aging father's tight, but failing grip on his glorious past – but it is so frequent that audience members could be heard mumbling the lines along with the actors before long.  Rather than driving home a point or two, the lines become irritating in their repetition and make hating the father rather too easy, when we should be trying to find some kernel of humanity in him to sympathize.  The litany of everything the father feels he has done for an ungrateful son – food in your stomach, a roof over your head, blah, blah, blah – is as irritating as a seed under a denture.  And while it might make us feel more for the son, and rally to his side when he finally has a showdown wit the old man, it instead makes us think, what the hell took you so long?

Fortunately, Ms. Mains has taken great pains to tell us this story without any more clutter than the over long script.  A few pieces of furniture and a handful of props are all we get to see.  Instead, we are granted time to visualize for ourselves several scenes.  One such scene at a funeral parlor casket selection room, is particularly poignant because the acting the surrounds this somber place almost comes more to life because we can't actually see the coffins.  She has also done a fine job of pacing the scenes, with nearly seamless set changes and effective lighting choices (designed by Evan McDougall), so that the production doesn't slow down anymore than it has to, to accommodate the play itself.

What really saves the day, though, is the acting.  Robert Scott Hitcho and Kelsey Painter do most of the scenic leg work and contribute several minor, but decently acted characters, completely believable, even as they are relegated to walk on status.  Dave Guy, as friend to the elder Garrison and funeral director, offers a realistic depiction of a difficult occupation.  He fairly exudes warmth and compassion, abated by the slightest hint of emotional distance.  Similarly, Mike Keating is kindness personified as Reverend Pell.

The rest of the company is the Garrison family, torn apart by years of anger, misunderstanding and prejudices.  Tracie Jules makes a late, but extremely effective entrance as the banished sister.  Her measured performance is carefully calculated to show a woman who, torn down as she might have been, has risen above anything her father could dish out.  She is particularly effective when she must say all of those things a grieving family doesn't want to hear, but must face head on.  She is a lone voice of reason toward the end, and you find yourself rooting for the character and thankful for the actress.  Suzanne Young is the very picture of the mother who worships her children and has acted for decades as the referee between father and siblings.  As the wife, she very realistically portrays a woman who knows how far she can go in disagreeing with her irascible husband and come out unscathed, and she is infuriating as the mother who defends the father by explaining away his issues, and telling her son how to approach him with difficult news.  Her touching portrayal is a nice counterpoint to Frank Vince's unrelenting and finely executed performance.  Mr. Vince does a superb job of thoroughly believing that his character is completely right, regardless of how obvious it is that he isn't.  That kind of acting is difficult, but he does so with full commitment and frightening realism.  His final scenes are particularly fine examples of strong acting – his final moments will make the hair stand up on your neck.  Mr. Vince brings us to the brink of caring about his character, and that is as far as it should go.  The true breakout performance, though, is from Michael Donlan, as the conflicted son, whose Jimmy Stewart cadence and slump shouldered physicality nearly wordlessly convey a man desperate for acceptance and love, while knowing that the blows will be coming, either physically or verbally.  His confidence when talking to his mother is in sharp contrast to the sputtering, mumbling of lines he delivers in scenes with his father, and that is heartbreaking.  Mr. Dolan takes on the role of needy child with humanity.  His role is one most of us can relate to, and his performance is one of the best of the year.

The themes and the reality of the play are becoming more and more common for those of us at a certain age, as our baby boomer parents are rapidly getting to that age where the child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child.  When the play deals with that it does pretty well, but when it goes over it and over it, the play stops cold.

PHOTOS by Amy Jones.  TOP to BOTTOM: Michael Donlan, Suzanne Young and Frank Vince; Tracie Jules and Michael Donlan; Frank Vince and Michael Donlan.

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James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to (read more...)

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