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BWW REVIEW: Stellar Cast Wanders OFF THE MAIN ROAD in Williamstown

Written by William Inge; directed by Evan Cabnet; scenic design, Takeshi Kata; costume design, Paloma Young; lighting design, Ben Stanton; sound design, Ben Truppin-Brown; fight director, Thomas Schall; hair, wig and makeup design, Jared Janas

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Mrs. Burns, Becky Ann Baker; Faye Garrit, Kyra Sedgwick; Julia Conroy, Mary Wiseman; Gino, Aaron Costa Ganis; Victor Burns, Daniel Sharman; Mrs. Bennet, Estelle Parsons; Manny Garrit, Jeremy Davidson; Jimmy Woodford, Howard W. Overshown; Red, Joseph Huffman; Police Officer, Jonothon Lyons; Sister Cecilia, Sarah Chalfie

Performances and Tickets:

Now through July 19, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street (Route 2), Williamstown, Mass.; tickets available online at www.wtfestival.org or by calling the Box Office at 413-597-3400.

Small-town life is anything but a picnic in William Inge's newly discovered, previously unproduced play OFF THE MAIN ROAD currently receiving its decades-delayed world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. Starring Kyra Sedgwick as the aging St. Louis debutante Faye Garrit and Estelle Parsons as her overbearing mother Mrs. Bennet, this dense and diffuse melodrama meanders through a forest of darkness and despair only to return its three generations of hapless women back to the starting point with little to show for their travels.

It's the winter of 1966, and the aimless Faye has taken her 17-year-old daughter Julia (Mary Wiseman) out of her Catholic boarding school so that she'll have company in the rural cabin she has rented in order to escape her abusive husband Manny (Jeremy Davidson). The trouble is, the cabin is not far from her childhood home outside of St. Louis, so Manny has little trouble tracking her down.

What the frightened and distraught Faye had hoped would be a safe haven becomes a revolving door of more and more intrusive visits from her mother, husband, the owner Mrs. Burns (Becky Ann Baker), the owner's teenaged son Victor (Daniel Sharman), and a menacing cab driver named Gino (Aaron Costa Ganis), who's looking to give Faye more than just a taxi ride. Throw in an old friend named Jimmy (Howard W. Overshown), a closeted homosexual who now runs a local art gallery, and the road to independence that Faye is trying to negotiate becomes muddy and overgrown.

Like his contemporary Tennessee Williams, Inge populated his plays with complex women drawn from his own childhood experiences. In his four great plays, Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, his women are all achingly real and longing for something better than the stifled lives they live in small-town America. Inge treads similar angst-covered ground in OFF THE MAIN ROAD, but here his women suffer for naught. Even though Faye and Julia struggle mightily to find their way amidst changing circumstances and changing times, in the end they retreat to the safety of what they have always known. We expect that of Mrs. Bennet. She is a product of her generation, a survivor of the Great Depression who now clings to the social strata and financial comfort her husband has provided her. But Faye and Julia are obviously restless and uncertain - about their roles as women, what they can expect and deserve from men, and how they will embrace their own sexuality as the feminist movement begins to take hold. We can see where Inge might have been going as he challenges mother, daughter and grandmother to come to terms with themselves and the men who would define them. Unfortunately, he never gets there in OFF THE MAIN ROAD.

Evan Cabnet's flat direction doesn't help. His monotonous pacing makes the many twists and turns in the plot feel abrupt and disconnected. Moments that should be fraught with heartbreak and ambiguity seem cavalier, even comic. His very talented cast does the best it can, but when even massively gifted actors like Sedgwick and Parsons can't find their natural rhythm, it's not just the play that's let them down.

Despite these drawbacks, there are sparks of what could have been evident on the Williamstown stage. Sedgwick encapsulates the anxieties of a middle-aged woman on the verge of divorce and a nervous breakdown. She infuses Faye with the same kind of broken-winged beauty that Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe possessed, making her instantly accessible and sympathetic.

Faye has money but no emotional stability, and with no work experience or career skills, she has no idea where to find fulfillment. Afraid to return to her violent husband yet terrified of the abyss on whose edge she now teeters, she feels trapped in a horrible in-between.

To manifest Faye's figurative captivity Sedgwick moves like a caged lioness, darting from one corner of her rustic cabin to another, chasing errant thoughts and clinging to a tumbler full of whiskey as if it were a lifeline. Her Faye has been ill prepared for life without a husband, and she is keenly aware of how empty her life has become.

Mrs. Bennet has no such doubts about her place in the world. Hers is a life of prescribed behaviors and rules of social etiquette. Parsons turns this white-gloved, high-society smother-mother into a multi-dimensional lovable imp who puts no barrier between what's on her mind and what comes out of her mouth. She becomes altogether charming in a role that could easily be off-putting by softening Mrs. Bennet's haughty interference with an air of obtuse innocence.

As Julia, Wiseman goes toe to toe with her star-billed counterparts, convincingly playing a convent-reared teenager trying to decide between the love of a boy and her love of God. She waivers delicately between being a shrewd adolescent and a neglected child without ever seeming petulant or surly. Sharman is equally affecting as her boyfriend Victor. He is just enlightened enough to appreciate a girl with a mind of her own but also old-fashioned enough to still want her to change it to suit his needs.

The adult men in OFF THE MAIN ROAD are the most stereotypically defined characters. Manny is an ex-professional baseball player who now hits his wife instead of home runs. Gino is an adulterous taxi driver whose unsolicited seductions look an awful lot like rape. Jimmy is a gay art dealer who serves as Faye's confidante and BFF. Only Manny is essential to the plot, and Davidson plays him so forlornly that his so-called rage never feels truly dangerous.

Production elements are first-rate in OFF THE MAIN ROAD, with Takeshi Kata's detailed scenic design evoking the seasonal cabins of a bygone era and Paloma Young's costumes fixing the play squarely in the post-Camelot 1960s. Lighting design by Ben Stanton and sound design by Ben Truppin-Brown subtly mark the passage of time from mid-winter to early spring, and Thomas Schall's fight sequences are jarringly realistic.

It's easy to see why William Inge's estate, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, were eager to bring this newly discovered play to life after all these years. One can see tremendous potential in a story about three generations of women coming to grips with their own identities set against the decade that saw tectonic shifts in politics, technology, mass media, Equal Rights, Women's Rights, sexuality, global relations, and pop culture.

Alas it's also easy to see why Inge left this manuscript in the drawer. Most likely a first draft, OFF THE MAIN ROAD meanders too far off the main path.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL: Kyra Sedgwick as Faye Garrit, Estelle Parsons as Mrs. Bennet and Mary Wiseman as Julia Conroy; Kyra Sedgwick; Estelle Parsons; Daniel Sharman as Victor and Mary Wiseman; Kyra Sedgwick and Howard W. Overshown as Jimmy Woodford


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