Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But any time you can make a play (or a movie) out of a best-selling novel, you should probably go ahead and do it. Playwright Nancy Gilsenan found narrative choices that are rich and deep in the novel, for her play that dates back to 2004, when it was produced Off-Off-Broadway by Nicu's Spoon Theater Company. Jessica Johns Kelly directs the CCT production with great honesty, leading this very slightly off-kilter and just this side of dissonant production and cast.
Of course I shouldn't tell you this, because it reflects badly upon me, but somehow it reminds me of the time we drove our car, with me in the backseat. I was holding the top of a big fancy glass chandelier (festooned with a hundred crystals, large and small, tinkling away), riding across rough streets from where we'd purchased it for our dining room, at a local antique shop (a block west of this very theater). And, rather than simply having it delivered safely by truck a few days later, we embarked upon a long, potholed drive back home with that gargantuan glass fantasia. It was a drive destined to become fraught with imprecations.
In Ordinary People (like me, holding that chandelier in the backseat), the mother in is likewise demanding gentleness and stability after family upheaval, but she is also unwilling to let go of a great personal loss, or the glittering life she still manages to lead in spite of it. Hollow consumerism and the ruthlessness of status-seekers will take their toll on the proud and the innocent alike here.
And, almost beyond our seeing, a strange and legendary monster will arise, taking the form of a Gold Coast (Chicago) mom. Look for the endless echo of the same madness that runs all the way from Medea to Hedda Gabler to Madam Arkadina to Mrs. Venable to Madam Rose to Diana Goodman, and you'll catch sight of it here too, in Tracy Murphy's unapologetically splendid performance as the infamously charming Beth Jarrett.
The two hour and ten minute drama is replete with psychological detail, following a boating tragedy that's still destroying a family in Chicago's wealthy Lake Forest. It's really not the Gold Coast at all, going by zip codes. But here Ms. Murphy, obsessively, presentationally "normal" as Beth, first comes on in the same familiar oatmeal sweater-and-dress Gold Coast uniform of every well-to-do mom up there, who knows how to flaunt it in an understated way. She has that same lovely golden hair, like a waifish girl, but strangely like a character caught between the films of Bergman and Hitchcock, and is ruthlessly disciplined down to about a size zero. The first-rate set and costume designs here are by Rob Corbett.
The play delicately explores a chasm between our presumed roles in personal and social life–and how deadly it can be to get caught between the two. Like Juliette's scheme, that backfires in Les Liaisons dangereuses. Several key moments in this newer play have the feel of a sumptuous potboiler movie out of the 1950s–in a good way.
As a matter of local Chicago background, it seems like someone's always getting killed in Lake Michigan, or near it, nearly every year. A couple of years ago a young man tried to save his dog from a marshy "prairie reclamation" pond on the other side of busy Lake Shore Drive (the dog lived, but the man sadly drowned). And more recently another jogger was shockingly swept away by a sudden, geyser-like wave splash right along the water, along the run/bike path. Below the glittering skyline, the man-made beach stands like a dark and jagged ledge against a great inland ocean, eternally upstaged by all those proud apartment buildings on the other side of a glorious freeway.
In Ordinary People, it's been a year or so since the boating accident that killed the Jarrett family's golden child, farther out on the lake. It has left a torment that none of them are truly coping with. In fact, at least figuratively speaking, everything here seems to take place on the edge of a man-made beach, even after a year of mourning. And geyser-like waves of personal drama still explode at unexpected turns.
Nearly half the scenes end with the feeling that someone's just been swept away again. On top of all of that, the artwork on the walls of the Jarrett living room deviously portray almost nothing but rivers or seasides. And most fiendishly of all, the pre-show music is 1980-ish pop songs, accompanied by a strange, ultra dark-humored gurgling of water. In its sense of stagecraft, there is a fair bit of "camp." But at a very high altitude. And there's no "winking" in Tracy Murphy's performance. It's just a meat grinder you're falling into. Which seems especially shocking.
Of course, it was a big Hollywood movie in 1980 that was made nearly universally available, after its run in theaters, through the advent of cable TV. The title alone still exists in my head like a blunt-force injury to the collective psyche. It was the movie that made a monster out of Mary Tyler Moore.
But then you put real live actors on stage and watch as they count out the compromises and all the failed reaching-out. And there are a million invisible traps of nuance and clauses in the social contract that snap shut like mousetraps on toes and fingers in a darkened room of full of unspoken truths. Half of the characters are teenagers, and all of that deflects and draws the anguish out in strange new ways, thanks to a really good director and a really good cast.
Jeremy Schnelt is very fine as the surviving son Conrad. He's in nearly every scene, and is pulverized emotionally in about half of them. I noticed the audience clapped after most of his scenes, but especially after the scenes where he grows a bit, psychologically, or is thrown a life-line by another character. We will always prefer growth and healing, and simple moral victories, at least as observers–though a tug-of-war may seem constant, with tragedy at the other end of the rope. And this Conrad is consistently natural, in a play that's designed to take its toll on the actors.
Alex Alderson is simple (and I guess quietly complex) and feeling and genuine as Conrad's father Cal, who realizes too late the toxicity of his own home. I love the strange way he describes his on-stage wife as being like a watercolor painting. Ms. Murphy allows Beth to be swept away by country club society at the cost of her family. An invisible sphere of rocks seems to envelope her each time her own, invisible chandelier of reputation is rattled. In the real world, it happens to men all the time. But by changing the gender and by putting a woman in this proud, brittle role, it all becomes much more galling and dramatic. It's a kind of narrative transgendering, to find out what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Or, the chandelier in someone else's backseat.
Tyler Crandall and Tyler Webster are very believable as Conrad's swimming teammates in high school (Conrad is repeating his senior year after a suicide attempt). And Nadja Kapetanovich portrays a great source of relief and comfort (about half the time, when things are going okay) as the new kid in school, Jeannine. Part of the invisible set decoration for all of them is the helpless thrashing around within ambitious families.
Brad Kinzel is predictably great in the role of Dr. Berger, who starts as a psychoanalyst and becomes a kind of life coach to resistant Conrad. Tim Naegelin is rueful but complex as Coach Salan, trying to forge together a working swim squad while also being mindful of the minefield of teenage development, and Conrad's endless feelings of guilt over his brother's drowning. Sarah Vallo works in some unexpectedly higher frequencies of character as Conrad's friend from the psych ward of a local hospital, Karen, who has no scenes with Beth, but becomes a strange counter-balance to her, and we worry about what path she will take.
Of course it reminds us of how unapologetically grasping our parents felt they had to be, having grown up in the Great Depression. And how impossible affluent family life could seem when the parents were celebrated over the children. It's equally true approximately fifty years after 1929: our mothers had been waiting a long time and suffered outright contempt (and worse) on the way to fulfilling their own dreams. I suppose in 1980 the test was just to see how far you could go without shaking up your home life too badly.
The problem was, nobody could agree on how far that could be.
Ordinary People runs through April 2, 2023, at the Washington University South Campus (across from St. Mary's Hospital and the big grocery store), 6501 Clayton Road, Clayton MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.placeseveryone.org.