Wednesday, December 22, 2021

An Evening with Thornton Wilder

This should probably be “An Afternoon With Thornton Wilder” because that is when we went to see these plays, but Stars Playhouse said “Evening,” so I am going with that. 


I have written about plenty of productions at Stars Dinner Theater over the years, but oddly, had never seen anything at their smaller venue, Stars Playhouse. This location is in a small industrial building, and is even more barebones and intimate than The Empty Space. Whereas Stars puts on musicals, the Playhouse focuses on plays, often ones with small casts, and minimal sets. In other words, the sort of stuff Thornton Wilder liked to write. 


The headliner for this trio of one act plays was The Long Christmas Dinner, which was bookended by Queens of France as the opener and The Drunken Sisters as the humorous closer. The three put together had a run time of about that of a regular play. Many of the cast appeared in two of the plays, but none were in all three. 


I don’t always mention the directors of the plays I see, although I probably should more often. Since I am not part of the productions, it is often difficult to know exactly how much of the production to attribute to the director’s vision, so I haven’t tended to speculate. In this case, John Spitzer (last seen as Lancelot), who is the artistic director of the Playhouse, directed the plays and came out before each one and said a few things about it. I rather enjoy getting that sort of insight into the director’s vision, so that was definitely a positive about the production. It was clear that Spitzer felt a personal connection to The Long Christmas Dinner in particular, and that love came through. I appreciated the chance to see some Wilder live, and thought the productions were well done. 


Queens of France


This is technically a one-act play, but it felt a lot more like a vignette. The scene is the office of M’su Cahusac, a con-man lawyer. Over the course of the play, three women, in different stages of victimhood, come in. Cahusac is in the business of convincing them that they are each the heir to the crown of France, descendant of the lost dauphin. (Fans of Huckleberry Finn will remember how long this sort of thing has been going on in the American South…) The first is a young woman who is hearing for the first time that her life may be in danger because she is the rightful queen. The second is still in full belief in the scam, and is hit up for money to “redeem” some item belonging to the royal family. The third, the oldest, is beginning to doubt the story a bit, but doesn’t entirely care, because it has been a fun fantasy. And, she has nothing better to spend her money on than a bit of attention from a younger man. 


The mood of the play is that of light humor, and a bit of a wink of an eye. Like most Wilder works, the humor is gentle rather than biting or mean. And the point is that we believe what we want to believe - all Cahusac has to do is appeal to vanity, or a desire for purpose in life, or a need to boost self esteem. He is selling a lie, but it goes down easy if you want it to. 


Four actors (Blanka Trujillo, Jordan Fulmer, Emma Scott, and Leslie Lane), a simple set, and understated acting brought the play together. 


The Long Christmas Dinner


This was the longest of the plays at around 40 minutes. The basic idea is pretty easy to explain. The Bayard family has a series of Christmas dinners over a 90 year period. Characters come and go as time goes on. They are born, they die, they marry, they have children. Life happens. A house that was once new and exciting becomes old and (in the eyes of some of the characters), haunted. Roderick’s business becomes a factory, culture and technology change, a war leaves holes in families everywhere, and so on. 


The play takes place around a table, and the characters come and go through three entrances/exits. The first is that of birth - we understand characters to be born through the way the other actors react to the pantomimed babies that are held. The second is where characters who go away and come back enter and exit. So, when Cousin Brandon returns from Alaska, he enters from there. The final exit is just that. When characters die, they exit through that portal. 


Because the play moves through time seamlessly, the actors have to denote aging through their acting, not through costumes or makeup. While Wilder’s stage directions indicate the use of gray wigs, in this production, nothing was changed except the acting. I love watching each character go through the stages from enthusiastic youth to middle age to elderly frailty as indicated by everything from gesture to voice. In particular, I thought Karl Wade (Roderick Sr.), Cristina Goyeneche (Lucia), and Kamala Boeck (Cousin Ermengarde) were impressive in how they handled this. (No shade on the others, but those three were highlights.) 


Throughout the play, certain phrases keep recurring, and are passed down by generation just like heirlooms. For example, from Mother Bayard: “[current preacher] preaches a splendid sermon. I cried and cried.” Or from various elderly acquaintances of the family, being quoted: “Does [character’s] [medical complaint] give [him/her] much pain?” “Some, perhaps, but you know [his/her] way - it’ll be all the same in a hundred years.” Or, from various female family members: “Every least twig is wrapped around with ice. You almost never see that.” And, from the current patriarch: “To the ladies, God bless them every one.” I am sure I am forgetting some. 


I should mention here that the pre-production music was some solo jazz guitar by Patrick Reyes. He also played little riffs every time the years passed in this play, which was a nice touch. You can tell from context, but it was helpful to have the musical cue as well. (And also, I am always in favor of live music whenever possible.) 


I love the minimalist idea behind this play, and love the way Wilder handles the ordinary drama of family and the passage of time. 


One of his decisions did make me think a bit, though. The line in this family is traced by the males. Which, I suppose, since the house was supposed to be the same, this was in line with male inheritance. But it also raised a few questions. The first is rather personal to me. In each case, the daughter in law is fully embraced as part of the family, and in many ways, the women hold everything together. To simplify this, the one daughter in the play never marries or has children. But it still seems to me a bit odd that there was no female drama with all this. Perhaps Wilder - unmarried and likely gay - didn’t see or experience this? Or just made the decision to have all the real interpersonal drama be between the men? Who knows? 


The other thing about this decision is that the women in the family line end up as old maids, which, well, seems to be an interesting choice as well. I’d be curious if Wilder ever mentioned his thought process. 


Overall, though, an excellent play, and one that I enjoyed. 

 The cast of The Long Christmas Dinner
Not that they are ever all together at the table like this...

The Drunken Sisters


For context here, Wilder originally wrote a short play re-telling one of the Greek myths, entitled The Alcestiad. Euripides wrote the best-known version of this story, where Alcestis offers her life in exchange for that of her husband, Admentus. Wilder wrote this play, but then World War Two broke out, and it seemed to be out of step with the times. He sat on it for a while, and it wasn’t produced until 1955, and even the director admitted that he did a poor job with it. After that, Wilder decided to add a “satyr play” to go with the story, and lighten the mood afterward. The Drunken Sisters is that play. It wasn’t until after Wilder’s death that the two were actually performed together. In this case, since Stars Playhouse did it as a stand-alone, I think it really helps to know the mythology - in particular, the ending makes more sense if you know what happens.


Anyway, in this episode, the three Fates are sitting around bemoaning the fact that they already have heard all of the riddles ever created, and are bored out of their skulls. Apollo, overhearing them, sees a chance to save the life of Admentus, one of his favorites. He then disguises himself as a lowly slave, puts three bottles around his neck, and tries to “sneak” past the Fates. He is, as he intended, discovered, and “forced” to “reluctantly” disclose that the bottles contain Aphrodite’s elixir of eternal youth. The Fates appropriate the bottles, and drink them down. But Apollo has tricked them. The bottles actually contain a powerful booze, which makes the sisters drunk. With their reason impared, he bargains that if he can tell them a riddle they can’t answer, they have to spare a life of his choosing. He wins, but there is a problem. The Fates cannot give up a life for nothing - a willing substitute has to be found. And, well, we know who that ends up being. 


Jordan Fulmer returns in the role of Apollo. His hayseed version is pretty funny, and it is easy to laugh when the Sisters have the better of him in the end. (Also, can we agree that Apollo is serious putz?) Fulmer is an excellent comic actor too, and hammed it up properly. The three Fates (Blanka Trujillo, Cheyenne Reyes, and Madison Shuck), also made a big switch from their more formal and straight-up acting to an over-the-top style. It was a nice contrast from the first two, and a good way to send the audience out with a laugh. 


Props to Stars Playhouse for putting on these plays. I am thinking I should come back and see some of their other ones next year. 


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