Thousand Pines – Review by David Rosenberg

Confusion reigns in Matthew Greene’s sincere “Thousand Pines,” having its world premiere at Westport Country Playhouse. Writing about the aftermath of a shooting at an institution named Thousand Pines Junior High School, Greene delves into domestic matters more than either offering insights into the larger tragedies of death and destruction or connecting the dots.

It all takes place in three similar tract houses on Thanksgiving, that fraught holiday where gratitude vies with dissent. Repressed emotions are brought to the surface, leading to squabbles exacerbated by the shooting (which took place months before the holiday).

The affected mothers – one whose son did the shooting, the other two the parents of teens killed in the massacre – deal with the terrible event in different ways. The shooter’s mother puts on a brave face, busying herself with minutiae; another is angry, devastated and thirsty for revenge; a third is cynical and isolated. How they treat their remaining families, how they are treated in turn, is the play’s crux.

But similar reactions could occur after any traumatic event. Since it matters that these particular children died in such a particular way, shouldn’t we know the details, the back stories? Indeed, the evening’s most compelling moments happen when a teacher who tried to protect her students relates what happened during the shooting. Suddenly, here’s a story that’s specific not generic.

Greene’s realistic approach clashes with the idea of interconnecting situations. What we get is a primer on three different moms, coping how they will. Is this enough? The relationships and actions beyond the actual murders spill over into soap opera territory.

Yes, there are a few connections: an uncle decks a relative belonging to another family, an engagement is broken off because of the tragedy, do-gooder neighbors are simultaneously welcomed and rejected. But most of the backbiting, the conflicts, the revelations don’t arise out of the shooting. They begin to sound alike and the result is a repetitive evening, an attempt at theme and variations that slights both theme and variations.

Greene writes snappy dialogue and has a sure hand for characterization. Anne Bates is hesitant and nerve-wracked as the teacher, Joby Earle explodes as the uncle and Andrew Veenstra is fine as an agitated youth, the one character who clues us into the interweaving of families.

William Ragsdale is stuck with bland roles, while Katie Ailion has the misfortune of playing an annoying daughter in the second part. Best of all is Kelly McAndrew as three distinct mothers. Her distillation of secrets, her expressive gestures and the way she moves clue us into the terrors of losing a child. Take note of her sham control in part one, her fury in part two, her toughness in part three.

Director Austin Pendleton, an excellent actor himself, has a knack for helping actors bring out the characters’ idiosyncrasies, though some of his blocking is awkward. Walt Spangler’s set, Xavier Pierce’s lighting and Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are agreeable, while Ryan Rumery’s sounds lend an air of foreboding.

“Thousand Pines” narrows a big topic into a small play. Its intentions are admirable; its execution is muddled.

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