John Clark Donahue is developing a haunted, visually splendid aesthetic that is, frankly, too good for the material he directs. He crowds his stage with oversized objects and references to cryptic artists. His previous production, On the Verge, at the Jungle Theatre, included massive shipping crates and photographic reproductions of work by Etienne-Jules Marey. In the Hidden Theatre's regional premiere of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, currently playing at the Old Arizona Studios, Donahue has designed a tiny square of a stage that is overpowered by an enormous croquet ball and mallet. Did I say enormous? Somehow, that word doesn't seem sufficiently huge to describe the objects, which dwarf the cast. Let us instead say Brobdingnagian.
The stage itself is sky blue, with clouds painted on it, and has a little doll's house nestled in one corner. Donahue opens the play with Peter Colburn, a lanky comic actor with a worried face, strumming a tennis racket and singing, "Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me." Colburn is dressed in khakis, as are several other cast members who wander behind him, but these other performers have their faces wrapped in a drab muslin-type cloth. This opening is arresting, and is just the first of many such eye-catching visuals throughout the play. I thought at once of surrealist painter René Magritte, and subsequently felt silly about the fact (it seemed too obvious), until I noticed that a painting by Magritte graces the program.
The play itself is well written and well-meaning, but is another in a tiresome series of scripts written by young people about old people, in which the elderly do very little but recall some past pain or glory. In this instance, the main character is Mabel Tidings Bigelow, a Boston blueblood who once swam the English Channel. She is played with great humor by Annelise Christ, who seems to be teetering gloriously on the verge of parody. Her character drawls out dialogue directly at the audience like some semi-mad Katherine Hepburn, speaking out of a half-paralyzed face and shaking with palsy. Christ is terrifically entertaining as an old woman, gathering her friends and family around her for one final game of croquet. She is somewhat less entertaining as an angry young girl, barking that she was ignored by her mother and was too fearful to leap into a romance with a handsome British swimmer. And there is the problem with this sort of play: The playwrights always propose that old people are defined by some long-past injury or heartbreak. My experience with the elderly is that they seem perfectly capable of coming up with new injuries and heartbreaks: A forgotten thank-you note, for instance, or a slight at the canasta table.
But the script demands that Bigelow be haunted by her distant past, and so she is, with great help from Donahue. Even without the gargantuan Magritte-styled sets, his direction would cast a suitable solemnity over the production. For example, cast members changes their costumes in full view of the audience, and as they slip into their vintage garments they quietly watch the production, expressions grave. Even when the production gets silly--and it does so quite often--there is a sense of the grotesque that never quite lifts.
In one scene, Charles Schuminski unravels a droll tall tale, dressed as an old Irish housekeeper. (Once again, he's playing a woman, which he did recently in the Jungle's Talk to Me Like the Rain; directors seem to enjoy seeing Schuminski in drag, so I suppose we're just going to have to get used to it.) Schuminski tells the tale of the Loch Ness Monster to two young girls, whipping his arms about and roaring in a ghastly manner. As the girls throw themselves on the ground and explode into helpless laughter, Schuminski seems to be having a stroke. He turns orange, gasps for air, and extends his tongue repeatedly and hideously. When he tells the girls that they will kill him with their high jinks, it seems very possible that they will.
Of course, you don't need to be decrepit to be haunted by your past. The two brothers in Ten Years Apart, a new musical debuting at the Ordway, don't seem to have hit age 40 yet, but they spend the play obsessing about their childhood. One, for example, parallels his lack of ambition with his inability to hit a ball in Little League. Poor chap! Imagine how good his life might have been had he hit a few multi-baggers back in the day.
The two brothers have grown apart as they have aged, the older (Matthew Bennett) playing country-western music and knocking about in prisons, the younger (Sean McCourt) playing rebarbative modern rock songs and pursuing luckless relationships. The funeral of their father sets the events in motion that will necessarily bring the brothers back together, although they work their way through 14 songs before they get around to it. The songs, written by the performers, are perfectly hummable, although I found myself leaning toward the country-western stuff. Every time McCourt would start one of his melodies, steeped in sophisticated chords and jazzy riffs, I found myself waiting for the backdrop to rise and reveal the Electric Light Orchestra.
Unfortunately, the script (also by the performers) leans heavily on astonishing coincidences for its resolution. For example, at the end of the play the brothers are surprised to discover that they have written exactly the same song. This would be utterly beyond credibility if it were not for the fact that at the climax, the backdrop lifts revealing something more surprising than ELO: The back wall and window have been painted sky blue and covered with clouds, just like in Magritte's "Les valeurs personnelles." At that moment, I was willing to believe any coincidence.