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A CurtainUp Review
What I Did Last Summer
By Elyse Sommer
The present production rings true to its period and is astutely constructed in keeping with both Gurney and Simpson's dislike of spelling everything out with a lot of scenery. But while this is a production without a lot of eye-popping modern stage business, Michael Yeargan's set evokes a sense of a sandy lake front town. The design also makes splendid use of the growing effectiveness projections. Under Mr. Simpson's direction the essentially realistic family drama is fluidly integrated with the presentational style typical of Thornton Wilder's plays. My favorite new thing is the constant presence of percussionist Dan Wiener. What at first looks like a distracting gimmick serves both as an echo of the actors voices and adds the flavor of the once popular radio plays and the way they challenged audiences' imaginations.
When the summer during which the story unfolds ends, 14 almost 15-year-old Charlie has been on a voyage of self-discovery; but he still hasn't unearthed his creative potential. However, since Charlie is obviously a stand-in for the playwright who grew up in Buffalo, it's clear that this potential lies, not in the visual arts that an eccentric artist has him experiment with, but in playwriting. Given the details of that Lake Erie summer which becomes his first play, Charlie, like his creator, manages to break away from the constraints of his WASP background — but instead of abandoning it use it as rich and gently satirical fodder for his writing.
While What I Did Last Summer is presented as Charlie's own first play, Mr. Gurney was fifty-one or two when he wrote it and himself a parent of college age children. He'd been writing for many years but the big hits like The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters and Sylvia were still on the horizon. So you might call this a coming to the brink of major success play for Mr. Gurney.
Charley as the "I" of the title claims this as being his story with his brief opening monologue. However, several similar audience addressing claims to that "I" broaden the coming of age classification into family drama.
First to lay claim to the story is Charlie's mother Grace (Carolyn McCormick, capturing the stresses of World War II making her a single mother as well as her susceptibility to sexual yearning). With her husband still overseas Grace hopes to retain a sense of normalcy by moving her family from its Buffalo house to their summer home in an upscale WASP community on Lake Erie.
But things aren't really more normal. Being still young, attractive and alone, makes it hard for Grace to keep her friendship with a male neighbor just that. And neither her son or daughter is a happy camper.
Charley (played with charm and intensity by Noah Galvin) would rather get a job than studying for another try at passing his Latin and helping Grace around the house. His 19-year-old sister Elsie (Kate McGonigle, a Julliard student making her off-Broadway debut) is grumpy and frustrated because she misses her dad and all the boys her age who are overseas. The tensions, especially between Charlie and Grace, extend to their different tastes in movies. (Charlie, unlike his mom, doesn't think Mrs. Miniver is worth seeing a second time).
To expand the family circle and underscore the tightness of this type of all-of-a-kind community, we meet three other characters: There's Bonny (Juliet Brett), the girl next door and Ted (Pico Alexande) the son of town's chief grounds keeper. It's okay for Charlie and Ted to pal around together, but Bonny's dad definitely would not be okay with this "townie" dating his daughter. While Bonny and Ted do affect how Charlie's summer ends, the really critical influence on Charlie is Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen), an eccentric half Native American who became a rich man's mistress after her own family lost its fortune. She's now known as the Pig Woman, because the cottage left to her by that lover was once a pigsty.
One of the problems with the original New York production of this play was that most of the actors weren't good fits for their roles. That was especially true for the Anna Trumbull role. Not so, this time around. I can't think of anyone for whom eccentricity comes more naturally than Kristine Nielsen. She's a bit too over the top but it fits the part, and her interaction with Galvin's Noah works.
There's no getting away from the contrivance of the way the plot twists to reveal that Grace was once Anna's prize student and how that affected both hers and Anna's life. But even the women's twisty second act confrontation is affecting in the hands of the current actors and makes it easier to buy into Mr. Gurney's stated vision for building his plot around "the old captivity story, once popular in Puritan New England, where a child is stolen by Indians and becomes won over by the natural simplicity and freedom that comes with the Native American culture." Thus Gurney updated this situation by having Charley "captured" by the artsy, counter-culture Anna and leaving up to Grace to bring her son back into her "stockade." (see Gurney's web site: argurney.com)
The pleasures of this handsomely staged and well acted productions are abetted by the pitch-perfect period costumes and hairdos by Claudia Brown and Dave Bova; also Brian Aldous's mood supporting lighting when the John Narun's projections shift from the amusing typed text (taken verbatim from the script) to more evocative images.
Charlie's coming of age summer ends rather predictably and with the various plot threads dangling pretty loosely. And though this production won't turn this minor Gurney into a Gurney gem, does come closer to unearthing the play's potential to entertain the audience for all of its two hours.
Mr. Gurney's three-play residency will follow these two reinvigorated oldies with a world premiere called Love and Money. As always at the Signature, a ticket for a performance during the play's scheduled run represents New York's best theatrical bargain.