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A CurtainUp Review
Of Good Stock
By Elyse Sommer
Probably the best known and most often produced of these theatrical siblings are the bored-bored-bored Prokovs in Chekhov's Three Sisters. Also well known are Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweigs; and the Magraths of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart) and the Westons of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County garnered Pulitzers.
So. . . welcome aboard the three-sisters bandwagon Melissa Ross. Of Good Stock, this up-and-coming playwright's second play to be produced this month, refers to the Stockton sisters: Jess the oldest (Jennifer Mudge), Cecelia (Heather Lind) the youngest, and Amy (Alicia Silverstone) the middle one.
All the earmarks of this sub-genre of the family drama are in place. Like The Sisters Rosensweig, Ross's play unfolds during a reunion to celebrate the birthday of the oldest who's not been in the best of health. Shades of the Letts and Henley plays, there's plenty of dysfunction to fit the even larger category of dysfunctional family drama.
While all three Stocktons are New Yorkers, they don't see each other all that often, a signal that their relationships are not without potholes. Unsurprisingly, those potholes deepen when their get-togethers are at the Cape Cod house that their father left to Jess instead of all three daughters. Santo Loquasto's house rotates to reveal its ocean front deck and spacious modern interior. It's the sort of idyllic retreat anyone would treasure. Naturally, it makes for a likely cause for resentment on the part of the left out sisters, especially Amy.
That will is just one wobbly branch on the family tree. As if having a chronic womanizer for a dad (even when their forty year old mother was dying) weren't enough, the Stockton girls also grew up in the shadow of dad'sfame as a best-selling. Pulitzer-prize winning novelist. No wonder each daughter is in her own way needy and messed up and that this affects their relationships with each other and with men (3 of whom we meet).
Unlike her younger sisters, Jess was in college when her mother died, so did not have to deal with a stepmother. Being her father's favorite not only made her the owner and caretaker of the beach front home but of dad's literary legacy (and thus per his wishes, refusing all offers to make movies of his books). Her own illness is an emotional double whammy, coming as it does at the same age as her mother's — one of the reasons she wants her sister with her to celebrate her 41st birthday.
The play begins with Jess and her husband Fred (Kelly AuCoin), a food writer, preparing for her sisters'arrival. Amy will be bringing Josh (Greg Keller), who is soon to make her dream of a big, fancy wedding come true. Celia, who at thirty-one has never been in a long-term relationship, is bringing a new and apparently important man. That someone is Hunter (Nate Miller), a rather odd mate, coming as he does from a large, working class Missoula, Montana family.
The sisters arrive one at a time and, sure enough, the baggage of troublesome feelings pertaining to family history and current concerns get unpacked. Lynne Meadow directs these proceedings to get maximum laughs out of the sharp-witted initial interchanges and have them build naturally to the more poignant aspects of the story. The brisk direction helps us to ignore the occasional static spots. The eye-pleasing, vividly lighted set is further enhanced by the evocative incidental music and sound design.
As the conversation heats up it often overlaps. Costumer Tom Broecker abets the depiction of the sisters' individual personalities. Alicia Silverstone is stuck playing the somewhat stereotypical Amy. She can do just so much with this self-absorbed "bridezilla." Heather Lind fares better as Celia, conveying her determination to make her unlikely new life work despite her history of short-term affairs Mudge's Jess is the most sympathetic and effective as the only happily married Stockton, who after years of acting as the family matriarch needs a bit of mothering herself during her health crisis.
The weekend evolves into a Scotch lubricated free-for-all on the dock. This scene unites the sisters with a joint f-bomb-burial of their daddy issues and worries about Jess's health. While it movingly demonstrates the depth of family bonds, the scene goes on too long.
Despite that F-word heavy scene, Ms. Ross is essentially a more low key and less acerbic writer than Tracy Letts. And, while the Stockton Sisters are central to the plot, it's the men in their lives who are the play's best characters. This is especially true of Fred, played with great sensitivity by Kelly AuCoin.
Fred's sense of humor, his deep love for Jess, his willingness to put up with her involvement with the sisters whose visits are invariably explosive, provide the play's real emotional power. In the very first scene we see that he understands and supports Jess's greater than ever need to mother (and smother) her sisters; also his own unspoken tension about the effect of her illness. AuCoin is the true grownup at this party, bringing a wonderful mix of tenderness and geniality to the role.
Though Fred is the play's true heartbeat, the two "significant others" are essentially plot devices. Yet both, as portrayed by Greg Keller and Nate Miller, add dimension and humor.
Miller's Hunter has the makings of another Fred. He may be "the oldest undergraduate on the planet" but the small town large family into which he'll bring Celia, has given him a sort of folksy wisdom — a wisdom that may just help their rather hasty move into long-term commitment succeed. As he explains his outlook on family life, "You start out as like. One unit? And then everybody goes off and starts their own unit? And then you gotta like. Work shit out that you already thought you'd worked out. It's weird, you know? Family's so fucking weird."
Greg Keller is hilarious as the self-involved, superficial Josh. Though he seems like a perfect match for Amy, the party and an amusing man-to-man conversation with Fred results in a case of cold feet about being part of the fancy Tahiti wedding.
Anyone who's been at holiday get together with grown-up siblings will understand how these events can stoke up embers of long buried bad feelings. Ms. Ross has not stinted on humor but, Nice Girl. and her earlier Thinner Than Water , she has not succumbed to an old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending with Of Good Stock. She's enough of an optimist to allow for at least a promise that all will turn out well.