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Who cannot sympathize with a theater troupe whose declared intent is to emphasize the quieter human dimensions of drama, not only over the hyperkinetic mass-media fare, but also over the spit-and-conniption school of thespian showboating?
Anyone would approach the productions of such a company with a grateful heart and eager eyes, particularly if the players had the good taste and sense to present works by Anton Chekhov, Horton Foote, and other acclaimed realistic playwrights. But anyone who takes in the Quotidian Theatre Company’s current staging of Foote’s somewhat overrated 1995 Pulitzer winner, The Young Man From Atlanta, will come away from the evening disappointed by a performance that’s conscientious, well-intentioned, restrained, dignified, and without even the faintest spark of dramatic interest or intensity.
Pulitzer aside, the play doesn’t stage itself. The tale of a Houston grocery wholesaler and his wife facing the death of their beloved sonby suicide, from all appearancesand the falling dominoes of misfortune set off by that event is a study in obsessive, repetitive, and plainspoken worry.
It’s 1950, and the ever self-reliant, optimistic, straight-shooting 58-year-old Will Kidder (an unfortunately bald symbolic name for the protagonist of a realistic play) has worked for Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery (ditto) for almost 40 years. Six months before, Will’s son, Bill, possibly a businessman of some sort (it’s not quite clear), on a trip to Florida from his boardinghouse home in Atlanta, walked into a lake despite not being able to swim. In trying to get over not just his son’s death but its sad, murky circumstances, Will (Steve LaRocque) has become distracted, enough so that he’s losing grocery accounts right and left.
Will has just bought a big ol’ house to rescue his distraught wife, Lily Dale (Sunday Wynkoop), from sad memories, and he’s put down a deposit on a big ol’ Ford Packard for her, too. So when he’s unceremoniously fired, it’s not just Will’s pride, but his bank account, that’s pushed to the limit. Add Lily Dale’s exploitation by a ne’er-do-well former roommate of her son’s and Will’s heart condition, and you can see the high flame quickly warming Foote’s characteristically folksy kettle of misery.
LaRocquewho looks like a younger, longer-faced version of the film and TV actor John Mahoney (you know, Martin Crane on Frasier)has some things going for him: He’s got a stately, worn, and lugubrious presence as the quintessential midcentury American businessman who counts on material rewards for a lifetime of drudgery even if fate has robbed him of any inner peace or pleasure. He’s got a Grade A hangdog expression perfectly suited to grudging rehabilitation from a heart attackand to disbelief at the misadventures of a high-maintenance, Bible-thumping, deluded ditz of a wife. Beyond that, he’s got a convincing Texas Gulf Coast accent (which is more than can be said of Doug Prouty, who plays Will’s assistant, Tom).
And Wynkoop does a decent enough job of huffing and puffing her way through her addled role, conveying the self-centered gracelessness underlying Lily Dale’s veneer of Southern grace. The play’s dark residue of humor comes from how utterly Lily Dale has muddled things up in her period of grief, lending money to her son’s old “friend,” the never-glimpsed Randy (see heavy-handed character naming, above). Foote also gets a fair bit of mileage out of Lily Dale’s pixilated conspiracy theory about Eleanor Roosevelt having organized maids to disappoint their employers by taking jobs and then not showing upbut that gag gets less funny around the fourth or fifth mention. Particularly as flightily played by Wynkoop, it is hard to imagine Mrs. Kidder having been a serious pianist until her son’s deathit’s hard, in fact, to imagine her having the attention span or gravity to practice even a few scales.
As Lily Dale’s stepfather, Pete Davenport, who’d just moved in with the Kidders before Will was canned, Rob Peters is soft-spoken in a front-porch, shoot-the-breeze way. Vince Rodriguez, as Pete’s great-nephew Carsonwho has a peripheral relevance to what we learn about the mysterious Billgives kind of a grinning empty vessel of a performance in a part that’s sketchily written to begin with. We find out nothing more interesting about him than that he’s a fan of his hometown of Atlanta, he’s not a fan of Randy, and he really enjoys breakfasts. He’s a walking plot device.
For the most part, there’s nothing startlingly wrong with the portrayals. True, an officer on the nitpick patrol might note that LaRocque rushes and swallows some of his lines, and that Wynkoop and Peters do some annoying lip-smacking. But the problem, really, is that there’s nothing startlingly right with the performances, either.
The 1998-founded Quotidian, on its Web site, boasts that in its productions, “There will be no onstage gunshots, no ‘over the top’ performances, but rather restrained, natural acting where the emphasis is on a compassionate examination of the human condition. Since we hope to accurately depict scenes of everyday life, we have chosen the word ‘quotidian’ for our banner.”
Fair enough, but in The Young Man From Atlanta, the performances are so restrained that the life-shattering tragedies of a self- and mutually deluding couple skating on the thin ice of resentful civilities are ground into inexplicably bland, homey blather. Director, and company co-founder, Jack Sbarbori paces the material a little too slowly when we need at least a morsel of agitated fury, too quickly when the glum, quiet mood of the Kidder household warrants some sad pause. In other words, he averages the action out, so that what we witness is not time passing within the Kidders’ coop, but stopwatched pages in a marked-up script.
The acting, understated to an eerie degree, has a lot of unfortunate consequences. These Kidders are so low-key that they seem to be not only surviving the tragedies that the playwright has thrust upon them, but almost oblivious to them. And when they go on acting as if their lives hadn’t recently been upended, the impression is not one of stoicism, as the playwright surely intended, but of a mild imbecility. It’s akin to watching the cast of The Andy Griffith Show perform Eugene O’Neill. (“The Iceman cometh, Aunt Bee.” “Oh, really, Opie? Why don’t we ask him in and give him a nice cold glass of lemonade?”)
Appearances by Beatrice Judge as Etta Doris Meneffree, a former cook of the Kidders who remembers their better days and now has problems of her own, are engagingly, and uniquely, natural. She’s doing what the rest of the company apparently wants to be doing. Meneffree’s presence is no doubt meant to remind us that the Kidders aren’t the world’s only sufferers and have taken too much for granted. Moreover, it’s meant to show that such perspective might even penetrate, at least slightly, the Kidders’ own complacent, entitled, postwar middle-class orbit. In other words, it’s their comeuppance. But because they seem so wrapped up in themselves, in a mumbly way, it’s not clear they get it.
Granted, by the end, we find that even if the Kidders can’t confront the possibility that Bill might have been Randy’s sugar daddy (and/or Carson’s), they can at least confront that they can’t confront it. “There are questions I would have to ask and I don’t want to know the answers,” Will says to Lily Dale, explaining why he doesn’t want to talk to his son’s old roommate.
But because we in the audience have suspected those answers pretty much from Scene 1, the revelation doesn’t seem noble, just long overdue. And if that sort of thickheadedness on his parents’ part helped propel poor son Bill into secrecy and shame and self-destruction, that’s a retrospective tragedy andbecause we don’t know much about the young manan awfully vague one. The one we’re watching here seems quite secondary. “There was a Bill I knew and a Bill you knew, and that’s the only Bill I care to know about,” says Will. A narrow-minded, self-reproaching, ailing, prematurely old man. Sad? Yes. Interesting? Somewhat. Unexpected? Not at all.
Giving the play the limpness of backyard or living-room banter makes for a performance quotidian in ways Sbarbori and his colleagues should have anticipated, but surely didn’t intend. Eager as viewers may have been to see the maverick players’ plans for Daddy Kidder, they’ll leave fearing for the life, come spring, of poor Uncle Vanya. CP