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A CurtainUp Review
I Never Sang for My Father
By Elyse Sommer
You can't blame Keen's artistic director Carl Forsman for wanting to repeat that success with another Anderson play, I Never Sang For My Father, especially with Jonathan Silverstein again available to direct and a fine trio of actors— KeirDullea as the father who was too difficult and emotionally inaccessible to make singing a joyful eulogy possible; Matt Savitto, best known as FBI Aget Dwight Harris in The Sopranos, to play the frustrated son; and the always delightful Marsha Mason as the loving wife and mother whose death brings the long simmering father-son disconnect to a head.
The problem is that I Never Sang for My Father didn't make much of a splash even back in 1968. It was relegated to the college and community theater circuit after a very modest 124 performance Broadway run. The 1970 movie was more successful, mainly due to Oscar-nominated performances by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman as the unable to emotionally connect father and son. Since the story was based on Anderson's first-hand experience as a young widower and dealing his own father, it was probably cathartic. But, whether live or on screen, this simply isn't a great play with the staying power and lyricism of dramas by Anderson's contemporaries Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Having seen a revival of The Glass Menagerie just a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much Gene Garrison, the narrator and participant of I Never Sang For My Father, is an heir to Tom Wingfield — a son, in this case middle-aged and a widower, wanting to do the right thing by his parents, but yearning to make a new life with a new love in California. Instead of the mother Tom loves but who also drives him crazy, there's the father who is too locked into his own unhappy childhood and resentment towards an alcoholic, irresponsible father to foster nourishing connections with his own children. For all the similarities only the magic of Glass Menagerie is the stuff of greatness. Thanks to Silverstein's subtle direction and the committed cast I Never Sang For My Father is a fine revival, but it never comes close to greatness though it does have a powerful climactic scene that has father and son finally and briefly connect before the parting that Gene as filled with pain and regret as it does Tom Wingfield.
That's not to say that I Never Sang For My Father doesn't deal admirably with the universal theme of coming to terms with aging both from the point of view of parents and children in realistic rather than overwrought terms. Since Alzheimer's and other illnesses that escalate with advancing age have hardly disappeared this family saga should be as relevant as ever. Perhaps this adds to rather than diminishes its dated feeling since a situation like his would nowadays be a major economic as well as emotional issue — or, on a happier note, that today's seniors live more independent and fulfilled lives; also that men generally are freer to expose their touchy-feely natures and that our multicultural society would make a father far less likely to disown a daughter who marries a man of a different faith.
It's failure to join the canon of always great and thrilling plays notwithstanding, I Never Sang. . . does have some wonderful scenes with terrific acting opportunities that the actors of this production realize. Keir Dullea, is especially outstanding as the patriarch, who's still tall and handsome but whose mind really is, as he repeatedly declares "like a sieve." From the moment he gets off the train after a winter spent in Florida to escape the harshness of a New York winter, he gets under our skin as well as his son's. Yet, you can understand why Gene, is upset to see this once proud and successful man deteriorate physically and mentally and desperate to reach across the chasm that's prevented them from having a loving relationship.
While this production is very much Dullea's show, Savitto moves naturally and convincingly between his role as memoirist and active participant in the action. Marsha Mason, who's a welcome presence on any stage, adds much needed warmth and charm as the ailing Margaret Garrison who's everything that her husband is not — a genuinely loving and caring mother, who's retained her sense of humor despite major illnesses. Her memories and regrets are neither bitter or self-absorbed like her husband's. In one of the play's most powerful moments Mason captures the intelligence beneath the bridge playing, club woman with this memorably poignant observation: "What a shame children can't see their parents when they're young and courting, and in love. All they see them be is tolerant, sympathetic, forbearing and devoted. All qualities unimportant to passionate young people."
As for the direction, as the film opened up the stage production, so Jonathan Silverstein has staged the play with virtuosic minimalism, with several scenes you may remember from the movie eliminated and the focus never veering from the main plot arc— Gene's reunion with his parents and the painful departures that follows— first, the mother's and eventually and inevitably, the son's.
Silverstein has smartly reduced the cast so that two actors play all the peripheral characters. Melissa Miller plays a waitress and a nurse, and Hal Robinson takes on five small males. The legendary Jo Mielziner's scenery for the Broadway production was undoubtedly not as spare as Bill Clarke's for the Keen.
The stage is bare except for a small table, some chairs and some upstage panels for the actors to enter and exit, and basic props like a hospital bed to be wheeled on and off stage. The table and chairs and hanging lights suggesting the living room of the Garrison's Westchester home are covered up and dark for the fourth wall breaking narration. The chairs are unobtrusively rearranged to create the various settings: the opening train depot scene where Gene picks up his parents to drive them to Westchester and during which the family dynamic is established. . .the living room being inhabited by Margaret Tom and Gene and, twice by Alice, the sister who lives in Chicago (a persuasive Rose Courtney in the role played on Broadway by Anderson's second wife Teresa Wright). . .the dining room Schraffts, once a mainstay of pleasant and unadventurous middle class dining. . .a funeral parlor and the local rotary club. Josh Bradford's lighting is extremely effective in supporting the play's somber mood.
Silverstein's assured direction and the designers' excellent work gives this old-fashioned play the look and feel of a contemporary theater piece. But neither the director and his creative team or the actors can make this B-grade play into an A+ classic.