Thousand Pines is a sprawling development that was created in and among Pine barrows, with houses that all have the same basic format and a super-size grocery store where most folks shop and an elementary school that was a source of pride until one day it became the source of anguish. A child from one family took a gun to school and first killed some other students and then killed himself. Tragedy struck.
That’s the background of Matthew Greene’s brand-new play about the aftermath, and it will help you to decipher what’s happening on stage. Since the houses all look the same inside, one application by Set Designer Walt Spangler creates a functional living-dining room with stairs going up to bedrooms and a breezeway that leads by a wine shelf to the kitchen. The play takes place on Thanksgiving Day, in three different homes, with three different families, that are all played by six actors, switching roles to fit the story line. The first family is the home of the young killer, whose mother has a frozen smile and thinks that having a perfect Thanksgiving Dinner – perfect down to the matching colors of plates and napkins on the table – will help them to adjust to the tragedy by pretending it didn’t happen. She has run out of butter, badly needed for the perfect mashed potatoes, and her brother has gone off to the store to get the last pound there before the store closes for the remainder of the holiday. To his surprise, he couldn’t get the butter without a fight.
The second is the home of one of the victims, a little boy who tried to get out of the hallway and into a classroom but could not because the school was on lockdown, according to standard emergency policy. The mother in that family was his step-mother. An uncle (?) is a lawyer, and they are gathering witnesses who might testify about the events of the shooting in court. A guest at their Thanksgiving table is a teacher who is reluctant to share memories of the day, but in the end, does.
The third is the home of another victim. Disorganized. The sheriff (who might have been romantically involved with the mother in the past) brings a brother into the house in handcuffs. He has been arrested after attacking a man in the dairy section at the super-market: a man who he recognized as someone from the attacker’s family who came to the funeral. A daughter and her girl-friend/lover are there, too, and so is a stranger: a college student who knows more than could be predicted about the fight over a pound of butter.
The ensemble of six actors: Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, Anne Bates, Jobs Earle, Katie Ailion, and Andrew Veenstra; change costumes (Barbara A Bell) and embrace new roles as needed. The director is Austin Pendleton.
If you think this sounds confusing, relax. It is very confusing. But these hints will help you follow the gist of the play. One audience member called it the most important play she’d seen at the Playhouse. I might not go that far, but it’s an intriguing play and it reminds us of some sad moments we all have shared knowing about school shootings and their terror.
The Program Book includes a timeline, starting with Columbine in 1999, through thirteen different school settings. The last in May of this year. Matthew Greene is quoted, “To be honest, I’d love for this play to stop being ‘relevant.’”
The bottom line. “Thousand Pines” is very worth your visit.
Tickets and info at www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Nov. 6