BWW Review: THE TREASURER at Lyric Stage Company of Boston
For playwright Max Posner, sitting down to write The Treasurer must have been a feat of de-centering oneself. The narrative takes a dusky, balmy look back at the relationship between his father and his grandmother, a wealthy, New York socialite who lived with dementia in her old age. While the story is, in a way, indirectly autobiographical, it offers few mentions of the playwright himself, uplifting the perspective of the protagonist, his father. In shouldering the role, Ken Cheeseman seems to push Posner's language further into the periphery. His ambulatory addresses to the audience and stoic musings seem to be conceived of in real time, not memorized from a written source. However, Lyric Stage Company's production of The Treasurer is not the standard "I hate my father" solo performance you are likely to see at any undergraduate institution's annual student festival. In fact, though the text is dominated by Cheeseman's character, the production is upheld just as much by him as it is by Cheryl McMahon in the role of Ida, his mother.
McMahon is calamitously authentic in her portrayal of dementia. She paints Ida as a comically recognizable stock figure who cozies up to your heart, calling to mind that wacky, old relative we all have (or many of us had) and, therefore, feeling all the more devastating to see in the compromised, undignified positions dementia can put our relatives in. Earlier this year, Mary M McCullough's Smoked Oysters featured Paul Benford-Bruce in the role of a black man in Roxbury, Ulysses, living with dementia. In conversation with each other, and for audiences fortunate enough to catch both, we see very different ways in which the disease manifests itself. For Ida, we see meltdowns in Talbot's, a cavalierly excessive donation to the Philharmonic, and an insistence for a new dog whose name she cannot remember. Meanwhile, Ulysses devolves into a raging recluse, cared for by his son and unable to leave his home. Both actors and both playwrights handled the condition with scrupulous attention and, since most Americans know someone affected by either dementia or Alzheimer's, the performances became immediately memorable.
Another disturbing kinship was the ways both plays centered the exorbitant costs of medical treatment. Though from different socio-economic standings, both families face anxiety surrounding finances. The Treasurer does not seem to have all that much to say, but if its intention is to tug at heartstrings, it succeeds. This is not to say it is cheap or saccharine, but the incessant mentions of limited finances and an aging relative seem so universally bleak that little other than emotional catharsis could be the goal.
I am a big fan of director Rebecca Bradshaw's work. She has a keen eye for aesthetics which seem to derive themselves from text and can create viscerally captivating ephemera, fleeting snapshots of stories that will sit with you forever. The Treasurer was a strange pairing for her. Not quite monologue. Not quite representational. Not quite realism. Not quite story theatre. This is an enigma of a play, and I think Lyric Stage has disserviced it by forcing its roundness through the square hole that is an assembly-line, season-subscription-package theatre-making process. As this was Bradshaw's Lyric debut, it felt palpable that she was trying to establish herself and her style in this space and with this company. (Luckily for her, Lyric has already announced her return for next season's All My Sons by Arthur Miller, although, I'm certainly more excited to see her Henry V for Actors' Shakespeare Project this season.) As she strove to make a mark on the play, she left behind glaring striations from her work. Strange business with the houselights turning on and off at unconventional times, a seemingly random circling of the audience by Cheeseman at one point, excessive auditory warping of voices. Distracting weirdness.
I place the blame for the struggle less on her and more on the decision to pair her with this show. I would never want to see an episode of a soap opera directed by David Lynch or a Mamet play directed by Mary Zimmerman. Any director who has a sense of style (which we have so few of in Boston), should be allowed to direct their zany works, not be held down by a conversational think piece.
Bradshaw dragged set designer Kristin Loeffler with her. She has created a few effective images and dynamic uses of the space, but ultimately, many of the decisions seem extraneous and muddled. The overall impression upon entering was a wash of mismatched black set pieces which evoked the same slovenly haphazard-ness of an all-male, college, a cappella group who decided to all wear black for their semester show. This designer and director are struggling to make their voices perceptible, but no Boston theatre would deign to foist this play off on David Gammons or Igor Golyak or Cameron Anderson. We should treat these two the same way. Let them be weird. That said, the final ten minutes of the evening strutted right into their esoteric territory, and it was wonderful.
Who do I think should have directed and scenic designed this show instead? Hot take here: no one. This is a piece that has been developed and produced elsewhere. Once you get your headline actors in place, with a piece like this, let 'em go. I cannot be convinced that left to their own devices in a rehearsal room Ken Cheeseman and Cheryl McMahon would not arrive at equally-winning performances. I acknowledge that a director is convenient because she oversees all the logistics of the show, but I feel that these actors with a good lighting designer could have delivered this text more effectively. That way, the story could have flourished without the conspicuous hints of outside interference. I don't fully have all the logistics ironed out, but an unconventional, genre-defying play like this needs to be accommodated by a process that is not simply regurgitating the predetermined motions of regional theatre.
Photo credit: Mark S Howard