Ancestral Voices

by David A. Rosenberg

Here come A. R Gurney’s snotty WASPs again, moaning about society’s changes in a way that mirrors “Downton Abbey.” Indeed, substitute names and “Ancestral Voices” may as well be set in England as Buffalo.

 

Acknowledging that he started out to write a novel, then a play, Gurney finally settled on a hybrid. “Voices” is, like his “Love Letters,” more a reading than a fully-staged dramatic work, yet, in its genteel way, as charming.

 

At Music Theater of Connecticut, director Kevin Connors chooses to semi-stage the piece, which makes it even more a hybrid than intended. Five chairs are placed inside an archway, with two lecterns down front. Scripts in hand, the actors move about as they tell their stories.

 

The inciting incident is the breakup of Eddie’s grandparents’ marriage. As Eddie narrates it, grandma Madeline has exchanged longtime hubby Ed for his supposed best friend whom she wants everyone to call “Uncle Roger.” Eddie is reluctant since he and grandpa Ed were as close as could be. Besides, Roger is a boor.

 

Eddie remembers a fishing trip on which grandfather Ed taught him about the beauties of nature, of camping and swimming, and the satisfaction of cooking. When Eddie expresses his chagrin at news of the breakup, his dad comes up with platitudes: “Every family has a hole in it,” he says. “It’s our job to fill it up.” After all, not only is Buffalo in decline but Hitler is in power, World War II is on the horizon and someone has to do “the right thing.”

 

If this sort of self-aggrandizement sends shivers up your spine, to his credit Gurney also takes a jaundiced view of such characters. He knows them well since this is his background, too, and Eddie is obviously his stand-in. These people belong to a world that hoards power, one where women and men must belong to separate clubs. It’s an Episcopalian world where Catholics are unwelcome and people refer to others by their initials. No acceptable person would ever confuse the words “home” and “house.”

 

There’s another layer here: Eddie’s maturation. Protected by his mother, criticized by his father, he does learn compassion and manners. We see him not only as a young boy but a grown man with three children.

 

One’s empathy for these small-bore situations depends on caring what happens to a society in decline. It’s no less soapy than “Downton Abbey,” with characters as remote as the upstairs upper class, except here servants are unseen and unheard.

 

Gurney sprinkles humor and sentiment into his tale of shuttered domesticity and MTC’s actors plunge into their roles as if all this really still mattered. Marty Bongfeldt, John Flaherty, John Little, Michael McGurk and Jo Anne Parady are all excellent. Connors has added sound and music to Gurney’s stripped-down work, neither helping nor hindering. Since it’s an intergenerational story, it might have a wide appeal, despite its recounting of the tiny travails of the self-important privileged class.


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