Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Toys In the Attic
By Elyse Sommer
Recognition and money. Both are elusive as mercury for Julian Berniers, the pivotal character of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. In fact, he seems to have courted failure for all of his thirty-four years letting his adoring spinster sisters bail him out from financial mishaps.
Not so for his creator. Like Julian, Hellman grew up in New Orleans but she was only twenty-nine when her first play, The Children's Hour, became the talk of Broadway, running for 691 performances. By the time she was Julian's age, she had created the Hubbards of The Little Foxes, the role model for familial dysfunction fueled by greed and malice.
While Julian Berniers never really cared for, or allowed himself to care about money and recognition, Hellman pursued both eagerly and with great success. When Toys in the Attic proved to be her last stage hit in 1960, she forged yet another lucrative career as a memoirist. Adding to her reputation as a literary figure was her fame as a political activist and the longtime lover of the mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival is to be commended for choosing to give theater goers a look at Hellman's genre of well-made playwriting by way of a play which, in spite of its long and healthy run in 1960 and a movie adaptation in 1963, is less well-known and less frequently restaged than The Little Foxes. Set in Hellman's birth place Toys in the Attic is the story of Anna and Carrie Berniers, the two middle aged sisters who work at menial jobs and are united by their adoration and protectiveness of their charming but failure-prone brother Julian. The events of the drama stem from that brother's one attempt to stand on his own feet, and the siblings' interactions with each other and Julian's emotionally unstable young wife Lily and her worldly-wise mother Albertina Prine. The play contains all of Hellman's hallmarks:
The evil in this instance is overpossessive, destructive love. The tragedy is in the inevitable confrontation with the fact that dreams will remain unfulfilled. As Chekhov's trio of sisters will never see Moscow again, neither will the Bernier sisters ever take their long-planned trip to Europe. What's worse, truths heretofore unspoken have made life in the dreary house they hate even more devoid of brightness.
Director go shoe factory financed by his wife's money).
The cast assembled to bring new life to these characters is more than solid. Lizbeth MacKay, Seana Kofoed and Jeffrey Donovan live up the expectations estJohn Tillinger has relied on the play to stand on its past merits, without attempting to add any new wrinkles in the interests of modernity (the exception is the scene between Mrs. Prine and her African-American lover Henry Simpson (Michael Early) which did not include a kiss in the original). Indeed the need for control at the expense of love and the effect of money on our actions and attitudes are timeless enough to support his respectful treatment. This means a realistically detailed, evocatively lit set (a resounding bravo for Jeff Cowie and Howell Binkley!) and a leisurely pace with its only concession to current practice being a division of the three acts into two parts with a single intermission. For a while this pacing tends to be painfully slow. However, as the characters reveal themselves we get caught up in the situation of sisters' genteel poverty and the return of the brother after his most recent failure (a Chicaablished in performances I've seen in other plays.
Ms. MacKay last seen Off-Broadway as another low-key sister in Two-Headed is most affecting as Anna, the older sister who risks the loss of her sister Carrie's (Roxanne Hart) love by bringing the latter's incestuous longings into the open. She also breaks our heart when, bags packed to make a last-ditch and joyless attempt to finally go to Europe, she declares: "I am a woman who has no place to go, but I am going, and after a while I will ask myself why I took my mother's two children to be my own." Seana Kofoed, who gave a remarkable performances as a Scottish maid in An Experiment With An Air Pump is even more impressive as the slightly crazy and overwhelmingly needy Lily. Jeffrey Donovan, who effectively played Marco in the revival of A View From the Bridge, at times resembles the original Julian, Jason Robards, though he falls just a tad short of his character's overwhelming charm.
Debra Mooney, despite looking at least ten years older than the forty-five called for in the play's stage direction, is outstanding as Lily's somewhat enigmatic mother and the play's second most clear-eyed character. She is a marvel of dryly expressed wisdom and finely understated emotion. Ms. Hart plays Carrie as the over intense, over-the-hill steel magnolia, not afraid to be as annoying and unlovable as the playwright intended her to be.
Not a character, but nevertheless overarching everything is that old devil, MONEY. It is the toy in this attic that stirs unspoken rancors and truths. It is the means to ends that turn out not to be what was wanted all along. A misjudged pursuit of it can beg disaster. Disinterest in it is according to Mrs. Prine "a pretense the rich like to indulge in. . .a nasty game"
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
An Experiment With An Air Pump
A View From the Bridge