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BWW Review: Strong Cast Inhabits THE COUNTRY HOUSE at Circuit Playhouse

Bucolic settings are wonderful . . . until it rains and everyone is wall-to-wall unpacking their baggage, airing their dirty laundry, calling each other on the carpet, and climbing the walls. At least that's what happens in THE COUNTRY HOUSE by Donald Marguiles. This drama is an explicit homage to Chekhov -- sort of an UNCLE VANYA and THE SEAGULL mashup. Impressive as that sounds, I wasn't knocked out by the script. The setup is simple, the plot predictable, the conflicts obvious. In other words, the actors have to bring a lot to this show to make it worth watching. Fortunately Director, David Landis, has an outstanding cast.

As the show opens, the lights come up to the tune of Joni Mitchell singing Big Yellow Taxi, and we are drawn in to a very inviting shabby chic living room where the entire drama unfolds. Scenic Designer Phillip Hugen's work was beautiful and believable down to the last detail.

Everything takes place on that set. We soon learn that it is the one-year anniversary of a 41 year-old actress' death, and that her family is returning to their summer house for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The only non-actor in the clan is Susie (Brooke Papritz), millennial Ivy Leaguer, and only daughter of the deceased. Nonplussed by divas and irked by drama queens Susie copes by riding the pendulum between between being the voice of reason and the devil's advocate. Sometimes she waxes wise beyond her years, other times she tosses cold wisecracks into heated discussions just for the sake of hearing them sizzle.

Susie's grandmother, Anna Patterson (Jeanna Juleson), the regal family matriarch and star of Broadway seems to be Susie's polar opposite in both sense and sensibility. Costumer, Caleb Blackwell, has ensured that they are a wonderful visual study in contrasts throughout the show as well.

We quickly learn that Anna has just run into Michael Astor (John Moore)--an old family friend turned celebrity heartthrob, and has invited him to stay with them until his summer rental airs out after the fumigators. Simple enough, except that he's the man every woman in the story wants to seduce.

Add the late Kathy's misery-wallowing, hard-drinking brother, Elliott Cooper (Michael Gravois) her widower, Walter Keegan, (Barclay Robert), throw in his beautiful, much younger, new fiancée, Nell McNalley, (Kim Sanders), and add bad weather to confine them to the house, (kudos to Sound Designer, Carter McHannand and Lighting Designer Zo Haynes), and we're set for the perfect storm indoors. That indoor storm is a combination of grief, old wounds, longing and lust. After all, these are complexly flawed characters; each suffers from a different strain of mental myopia and engages in a different form of self-indulgence.

From the get-go they talk about Kathy-the deceased-in a way that feels more distant and eulogy-like than real people talking about their own dear departeds. But then, then this is a theatre family, presentational and predisposed to drama. These characters are in various phases of grief and have different ways of grieving, but in all respects, they seem unsettlingly self-absorbed and self-aware. It's hard to imagine them living the warm, close-knit past they sometimes wax nostalgic about. Rivalry and vanity loom large in their lives. On that note, they talk a lot about their profession.

When they do, they don't say anything new. Their banter consists of observations about things like celebrity versus craft, theater versus film, and the bruising toll of auditions.

Perhaps to make up for the script being peppered with cliche's, parts of Act 1 are paced a bit too quickly. There is an overlap in lines that makes some of them hard to digest, and we don't get the pauses needed to build tension. This roller coaster glides toward the top of the biggest hill, instead of click-clacking up the tracks in a way that allows the passengers to fully process the steep ascent.

But as long as the actors are good, formulaic plots are like a familiar rollercoasters, and by intermission, even though we have a pretty good idea where the story will take us, we're invested enough to enjoy the rest of the ride. That said, I felt braced for a hard punch that was never delivered by the story itself. Still there are a lot of magic moments, including some well played showdowns and meltdowns and an amusing blackout straight out of a British bedroom farce. Thanks to the performers, it's an entertaining show.

THE COUNTRY HOUSE reminds us that there comes a point when we can't go home again . . . and yet, there is no place like home.

At The Circuit Playhouse, 51 South Cooper through May 15th.

Tickets are $30 Thursdays and Sundays, $35 Fridays and Saturdays, $22 Seniors/Students/Military, $10 Children under 18. For more information or to make reservations, call 901-726-4656 or purchase tickets online at playhouseonthesquare.org.

Photo Credit: Carla McDonald/Bill Simmers


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From This Author Caroline Sposto