When a tragic event occurs, particularly events such as school shootings, the event is reported by the media and is discussed by those receiving the coverage as quickly as possible. In an environment where tragic events rapidly become a topic for debate and become politicized in many cases, it is absolutely necessary to remember those who are affected by these events, for this can happen and affect anyone. Matthew Greene focuses on the families affected by school shootings in his latest work “Thousand Pines,” which has its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse. Under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the production captures what Greene says regarding his work: “[T]he piece isn’t a political polemic; rather, it’s a reminder of what binds us together, even when the world around us seems hell-bent on tearing us apart.”
The play takes place on Thanksgiving Day; a shooting at Thousand Pines Middle School occurred six months prior, killing three and injuring nine. The three scenes in this production take place in the homes of the three families who have lost a loved one in the shooting. The holiday, which is to be one of unity and thankfulness, is shadowed by tragedy and loss, and in each scene, the audience members are able to see what each family is doing for that day.
Throughout the production, all the cast members, excluding one, play multiple roles, and the performances of each cast member is phenomenal. By using the same actors to play multiple roles, Greene shows that people can be affected by the same tragic event, but the difference is how individuals react to it. Katie Ailion plays a fiancé in one scene and a worried daughter in another. Anne Bates performs both as an aunt and a nervous teacher. Joby Earle plays in one scene a concerned stepfather and in the other a trouble-making uncle.
Andrew Veenstra, who plays Justin, is the only actor who does not change roles throughout the production. Justin is the older brother of one of the students that dies in the shooting, and Veenstra wonderfully plays his role as one who carries so much anger and guilt, for when his role requires him to act with sudden bursts of anger, Veenstra marches about the stage and fervently yells at the other characters.
William Ragsdale and Kelly McAndrew are two particular actors who have roles that are drastically different from one another. William Ragsdale plays a positive-oriented family member who tries to keep the Thanksgiving spirit cheerful, and in another scene, he plays a work-focused father who goes about during the scene inpatient and always alert to receive any work-related phone calls.
For all three scenes, Kelly McAndrew plays the mothers of the children who died in the shooting, but her acting changes for each mother. In the first scene, McAndrew plays the heartbroken, shocked mother, pretending that everything is fine and that nothing ever happened, and in the second scene, she plays the composed mother, who uses her work to keep her sane and distracted. In the third scene, she plays as the accepting mother: her character, though still heartbroken, knows that nothing can be done to bring back her child and keeps whatever she can find that will help her remember her child. To play multiple roles in any production is very challenging, and the whole cast performs wonderfully.
The set design by Walt Spangler is beautiful and homey. The gray walls contrast the autumn colors of the dining ware and decorations placed on the Thanksgiving table. The use of multiple walls, hallways, and a staircase provide depth for the set and a feeling as if the audience members are viewing the story in an actual house. The use of lighting by Xavier Pierce is subtle yet interesting to notice. When it is daytime, a light blue lights shines from the roof windows and main house windows, and when it is evening time, a navy blue shines instead. In conjunction to the lighting used in the production, the design of the stage is well made and takes the audience members into the story.
With the direction of Pendleton, Greene’s “Thousand Pines” provides the different and connected perspectives of those affected by tragic events. This production will be showing until November 17th. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, please go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call (203) 227- 4177.