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In T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, a house is not merely a home—it’s a world unto itself. Those assembled at English country estate Wishwood for dowager Amy’s birthday party soon reveal themselves as either insiders or outsiders. Amy’s sister Agatha, for example, has returned to Wishwood after decades of absence, and her plainspokenness marks her as more visitor than citizen. Soon after the arrival of another prodigal, Amy’s deranged son Harry, Agatha reassures him: “If you want no pretenses, let us have no pretenses.” But Harry’s mother and his other aunts and uncles engage in constant small analyses and corrections in their desperate attempt to smooth over his tortured recollection of the sea voyage where his wife was drowned—a story that includes the telling phrase “when I pushed her over.”
The Family Reunion is not nearly as well-known as Murder in the Cathedral or The Cocktail Party, two other Eliot verse dramas produced by the Washington Stage Guild in recent years, but it blossoms in WSG’s hands. It’s also perfectly suited to the company’s theme for this season, “Keeping Up Appearances.” The script is both good theater and good literature: It shifts between conversational prose and often incantatory blank verse with an ease that few but Eliot could muster. When the aunts and uncles, who sometimes morph into a chorus, murmur about their jealousies and doubts, the elegant language is a match for verisimilitude to anything uttered by poor lost Prufrock. They carp about each other’s failures, and their own, as they circle the room like carousel ponies in satin gowns and white ties and tails.
Such a promenade might cross over into cartoonland were it not for Bill Largess’ careful direction, aided by Marianne Meadows’ lighting cues, which shift the room into hypnotic blue when things get metaphysical. The actors’ movements are dancelike and smooth, their characterizations precise, whether pouring cocktails or musing about lost hopes. And, though it’s a small thing to mention, it’s nonetheless remarkable that WSG has assembled a 10-person cast of Americans who can manage credible British accents. True, Tricia McCauley’s overly plummy Mary sometimes sounds like more of an impersonation than a person, but her role is small, if pivotal. Lynn Steinmetz’s tippling Ivy is consistently winning—you know that if she were to leave Wishwood, the remaining crowd would be gossiping for months about her fondness for sherry. Conrad Feininger is terribly old-chap as Col. Piper, and Jewell Robinson is a strong-backed presence as Agatha, who seems to understand Harry better than he understands himself.
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She understands him better than we do, too, though—and that can be a problem: Though Jason Stiles does what he can with one of Eliot’s most difficult characters, his tormented, paranoid Harry, who points dramatically here and there as he babbles about unseen tormentors, can become more annoying than enthralling. When that happens, Agatha or Mary is always there to care about him even if we can’t. And just as it’s Agatha who creates the sense that there’s some worth in Harry, so do the other characters define his mother’s power, even as Barbara Rappaport understates her portrayal. A fearful, morally adrift woman, whose rose-colored lens is focused firmly on family and home, Amy is a creature to be pitied, not merely scorned.
Amy and Harry will both escape Wishwood, in different ways, by the end of Reunion, but Eliot reveals their fates through a glass darkly. The message of this murder mystery/Greek tragedy/religious allegory seems to be about trading one flawed world for another, better one. Harry’s arrival at Wishwood threatens its stultifying atmosphere, but the Christian playwright’s sights are ultimately fixed on something beyond the manor walls.
Across town, a real-life haunted house—Ford’s Theatre—is inhabited by another restless spirit, in the form of the protagonist of Hershey Felder’s George Gershwin Alone. Given that Gershwin took his final ovation in 1937, not many of us can claim to have hung out with him and brother Ira, so Felder’s on safe ground with his portrayal. Too safe, perhaps: The Montreal-born playwright, actor, and pianist is “the only individual to whom the Gershwin family has granted permission to create and perform the role of George Gershwin,” in press-release parlance. (Beware of street-corner knockoffs!)
So it will come as no surprise that George Gershwin Alone comes off at times as more lecture than drama. What does surprise is that its most pedagogical parts are among its most entertaining, such as Felder-as-Gershwin’s dissection of the use of unexpected intervals in “I Loves You Porgy.” Drawing—one assumes—on his extensive access to the Gershwin family papers, Felder also offers numerous charming anecdotes, including Ira’s “dummy lyrics” to “I Got Rhythm” before he hit on the perfect words: “Roly poly/Eating solely/Ravioli/Better watch your diet or bust.”
Director Joel (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) Zwick, who’s driven this economy car back into Abe Lincoln’s old haunt after a run last year, doesn’t do much to move along Felder’s unremarkable script. It’s mostly a talker, with casual musical interludes from the dapper Felder (Kenneth Cole is credited for “wardrobe design” for that one suit) and occasional dribbles of recorded music. The latter nudge Felder toward Natalie Cole “Unforgettable” territory; you feel uncomfortable watching him. The script makes one main point—Gershwin was an original, perhaps a genius (duh!)—and a few minor ones, of the flag-waving, self-made-dreamer variety.
When, in a sort of eleventh-hour plot diversion, Gershwin reads a vicious essay by Henry Ford that accuses him and other Jewish musicians of using “jungle sounds” to poison American music, Gershwin’s sorrow seems to be less about racism than about Ford’s silver stake to his artist’s heart: that he’s a fraud. Pretty much a music- and money-centered loner with little fondness for anyone but Ira—one romantic relationship drifts through the Porgy and Bess years with little real impact—Gershwin comes across as the sort of egotist who makes you want to snarl, “Shut up and make some music.”
And when he does, the squeaky-chaired-school-assembly experience is uplifted. Felder’s singing voice is that of a songwriter of the nonsinging variety: a perfectly acceptable stage baritone without too much distracting character. But he’s one hell of a piano player, and after he’s recounted Gershwin’s death (finally!) he lays on a lavish performance of Rhapsody in Blue that redeems much of an otherwise tedious couple of hours. You won’t even mind when Felder keeps you after school, as it were, for a Gershwin singalong. But that’s more a credit to the artist than to the re-enactor. CP