By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Most everyone likes to tell stories about coming of age experiences -- but is there anyone out there who really wants to hear them? We may think that we are unique among humans, believe that our observations about life are of great significance, and that everyone should beg to hear us. To this notion, I say, “Good luck!!!” The days of our grandmother’s tales are over. Even when we try to tell our own family members about ancestral history, there are so many other, fast-paced distractions, that folks no longer have patience to listen, never mind digest them. This is the way I feel about A.R. Gurney’s so-called “play,” “Ancestral Voices.” Only select audience members have the patience to listen to words, and I congratulate them.
I say “so-called play” because, by Gurney’s own admission, what began as a novel (that was turned down by several publishers) was eventually turned into a play. The work has all the elements of a novel and is uniquely presented like a book that is coming alive. That is, five actors read their parts from manuscripts. The individuals begin to speak while rising from living room chairs. After placing their scripts on stands, the players realistically portray their characters through a series of vignettes. Some actors play several characters while the child observer named “Edie,” acts as the narrator and also becomes a participant. The technique of incorporating these smooth, character transitions is due to Gurney’s fine writing, and the expertise of Music Theatre of Connecticut’s (MTC) director Kevin Connors, who always does wonders with this intimate theatre. The cast made a few, minor slips but this should clear up quickly.
“Eddie,” played sensitively and intelligently by Michael McGurk, renders his thoughts and humorous comments to the audience, as if casually talking to a buddy. Before we realize it, he allows us to enter his world and observe the ups and downs of his youth. We go camping and fishing, ride in the family car, witness various intrigues with siblings and relatives and attend family functions. McGurk makes you feel the close relationship Eddie had with his grandfather, Ed, whom he was named after. John Little very effectively plays both Ed’s loving grandfather, and the character of Ed’s best friend, Roger. Roger is the rough, outspoken charmer who stole Ed’s wife’s affections during his retirement years. Jo Anne Parady gives a marvelous portrayal of Ed’s fickle, materialistic grandmother. She also plays the southern belle, Fanny, who tries to attract the jilted grandfather. John Flaherty plays Eddie’s father and Marty Bongfeldt is his mother.
What A.R. Gurney has to say here is not of major significance. A grandmother’s unfaithfulness may have shocked Buffalo’s High Society, but in our crazy, mixed-up world, it’s not an earth-shattering tale anymore. While the play fails to build to an emotional climax, it’s the clever telling of this slice of life that is most enjoyable. Told against the background of World War II, there were many changes within this wealthy family, changes to the city of Buffalo, its people, and our general society that are still familiar to some of us.
Plays at MTC Westport, CT to Feb. 17