All the Way Home, a CurtainUp Off-Off Broadwayreview CurtainUp

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All the Way Home

The march of death is coming close to this family—John Henry Follet after a family visit to the oldest member of the Follet family, 104-year-old Great-Great-Granmaw.

Chandler Frantz and Patrick Boll in All the Way Home
Chandler Frantz and Patrick Boll in All the Way Home (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Of all the revivals I've seen recently, one of the most imaginatively staged and moving is now playing for an all too short run, not on Broadway or even Off-Broadway, but at the Connelly Theater in the East Village. The play, a Thornton Wilder influenced family chronicle set in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915, is Tad Mosel's All the Way Home. It starred Lillian Gish, Arthur Hill and Coleen Dewhurst, played more than 300 performances at the Belasco Theater (1960-61) and won a Pulitzer Prize, as did James Agee's autobiographical novel A Death in the Family on which it was based.

There isn't a big box office name among the 15-member cast, but there are plenty of memorable performances — including that of an eight-year-old star in the making, Chandler Frantz as six-year-old Rufus Follet, Mosel's fictional counterpart of the young James Agee. The innocence little Rufus brings to the unfolding secrets and tensions of the grown-ups who make up his world vividly color and sharpen this portrait of family life in a long ago era even as it filters the adults' darker feelings: the reformed alcoholic father's frustration at having to prove himself and bend to his wife's rigid Catholicism and insistence on not telling Rufus the facts about her pregnancy; the undercurrents of hostility set off by Uncle Ralph's very active alcoholism; the awareness of death intensified by a visit to the 104-year-old Great-Great-Granmaw.

The adults are all played with exceptional emotional depth. Patrick Boll blends charm and pent up frustration as Rufus's doomed father Jay Follet and Monica Russell's Mary Follet grows before our eyes as a woman who must find the strength to carry on after tragedy shatters her faith as well as her happiness. The rest of the cast is equally fine as the family members who are part of the joyous early scenes as well as the heartbreaking later ones. Barbara Andres is a fountain of warmth and strength as Rufus's maternal Aunt Hannah Lynch.

There are also two brief but unforgettable appearances by Irma St. Paule as Great-Great-Granmaw Follet and Corinne Edgerly as Aunt Sadie Follet, her caretaker whose heavy mountain twang defines the now city dwelling family's origins. It 's the family visit to the old woman that prompts John Henry Follet's (John Braden) above quoted rumination about the march of death approaching his family. But he perceives that march as coming in an orderly fashion — overtaking the barely alive Great-Great-Granmaw and with himself next in line. Of course, life doesn't always follow an orderly pattern and the Follet that death comes marching on is neither the ancient Granmaw or the ailing John Henry but his full of life son Jay. It is the blow of that sudden and totally unexpected tragedy that make audiences still identify with and respond this almost half a century old play.

Agee's novel, actually more memoir than novel and a not fully complete manuscript published posthumously, was notable more for its intense emotional richness and finely detailed writing. It wasn't the stuff of high drama, but Tad Mosel captured Agee's sense of people and place and created a portrait of a close knit family yet with different backgrounds, temperaments and beliefs, with those family ties at once tightened and loosened by the impact of the tragic accident.

While the play was filmed for the big and little screen (In 1971 with Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley as Mary and Jay Follet, Pat Hingle as Ralph Follet and Eileen Heckart as Aunt Hannah Lynch; and in 1981 with Sally Field and William Hurt as Mary and Jay Follet, Ned Beatty as brother Ralph and Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah), the Transport Group's production is most welcome because it marks its first New York revival but, more importantly, because director Cummings has found exactly the right way to once again make Agee's poetic evocation of the lifelong impact of his father's death on his idyllic youth playable for his actors and wonderfully watchable for the audience.

Cummings is no stranger to the Wilder style of no scenery staging, having already helmed a most innovative production of Our Town. The minimal props he uses for All the Way Home, pay further tribute to Agee's rich imagery — consist of two chairs and a group of toy-sized wooden houses as described in the first page of A Death in the Family. These little houses with the spaces between conjuring up streets and gardens for the actors to navigate make for a highly stylized production, with actions like pouring tea or driving a car mimed. The measured movements, and occasional scenes which have the ensemble assembled like a sculptor's multi-figured tableau tend to make the first act somewhat too slow-paced but the lives depicted here don't move at a fast pace and Cummings' direction underscores the agonizing build-up to the dreaded phone call about Jay's accident and heighten the emotional climate of the second and third acts.

Despite the absence of scenery, this is a physically rich production thanks to Shanna Albery and Kathryn Rohe's period perfect costumes, Paul Huntley's wig and hair design and Ellen Weiss's lovely music performed live at the side of the stage by harmonica player Corrin Hudleston. I found myself actually humming Weiss's soulful theme song during the intermission.

At $20 a ticket this is an undisputed best buy. It's also an apt forerunner to Transport's ambitious 20th Century project —a five-year plan to present ten productions (dramas and musicals) dealing with a different decade in American Life.

Playwright: Tad Mosel, based on James Agee's A Death in the Family
Director: Jack Cummings III
Cast: Barbara Andres (Aunt Hannah Lynch), Patrick Boll (Jay Follet), John Braden (John Henry Follet), Alice Cannon (Catherine Lynch), Corinne Edgerly (Aunt Sadie Follet), Chandler Frantz (Rufus Follet), Patrick Gilbert (Jim-Wilson Follet), Joseph Kolinski (Ralph Follet), Michael Lewis (Andrew Lynch), Tom Ligon (Joel Lynch ), Ben Masur (Father Jackson), Joanna Parson, (Sally Follet) Monica Russell (Mary Follet), Irma St. Paule (Great-Great-Grandmaw), and Letty Serra (Jessie Follet).
Sets: Sandra Goldmark
Costumes: Shana Albery & Kathryn Rohe
Lights: R. Lee Kennedy
Wigs and hair: Paul Huntley
Dialects: K. C. Ligon
Original Music: Ellen Weiss
Harmonica: Corrin Huddleston
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including 2 intermissions
Transport Group at the Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4 Street (212) 352-3101.
From October 26, 2006 to November 18, 2006 ; opening November 5.
Wednesday through Monday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $20
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 5th performance

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