The days of our lives

A Chain of Summer Voices

By Allan Rieser
Directed by Don Price
The Seraphim Company
Pantheon Theatre
303 West 42nd St. (866-5680)
Equity approved showcase (closes Mar. 25)
Review by David Mackler

In this memory play, author Allan Rieser tips his hand very early on by naming the family Grimm. It's the '30s but it's not just the Depression that's got everyone down; there's enough internal strife to fuel another three acts. This is a resolutely old-fashioned play, and the ghost of Chekhov doesn't merely hover, it looms large. He is invoked repeatedly, and needlessly, since there's a touch of Vanya, a taste of Cherry Orchard, a smattering of Seagull throughout. (And the title nudges Tennessee Williams in the ribs.)

David, the play's hero (Brett Hemmerling), is a nascent writer who has been staked to schooling in that trade by his rich Aunt Gloria (Carol Mennie). She constantly tells him she is certain he is a born poet, and since she is rich and famous and the only successful member of the family, no one doubts her word. Besides, the play begins with a prose introduction by David that is full of robust language, a speech far beyond his current tender years. So although the ending is preordained, it is easy to relax into the familiarity of the old-fashioned storytelling. But it is the superb acting and sensitive direction (by Don Price) that keep the play always on the verge of being more interesting than it actually is.

Gloria owns a farm in rural Pennsylvania where her brothers and sisters spend their summers. She announces her intention to sell, and uncertainty and nostalgia cause, well, very little action. Fred (Kurt Everhart) thinks he can run the farm better if only Gloria gave him the chance; Maggie (Linda Howes) and Liz (Georgia Southcotte) insist on putting up jam even though Gloria believes that should be left to servants; Waldo (D. Michael Berkowitz) hangs around pontificating; Harry (David's father) succumbs to an old weakness; and David himself experiences first love with Nancy (Kate Gilligan), a neighboring girl. Mennie nailed the imperiousness of the overbearing Gloria, Hemmerling was beautifully sensitive as the incipient writer, and Howes and Southcotte were singularly in tune as the spinster sisters who are each other's best companions. Gilligan was terrifically appealing as the scattered and selfish young girl, and Coler was extraordinary as he turned a rather standard speech about the realities of drinking into a heartbreaking confession.

The set (by Barry Axtell) was simply executed, but the impressionistic painted backdrop superbly set the action in the countryside described. The costumes (by Clifford Capone) were wondrous, and exactly suited each character - particularly the showy, bordering-on-vulgar outfits that Mennie worked so well. Lighting effects (by Jason A. Cina) were subtle and unobtrusive, as was the sound (by Sheafe Walker). Offstage cars rarely sound as authentic as they do here.

In a purposely heartwarming, very well-directed, and probably autobiographical epilogue (playwright Rieser recently died at age 85), our hero explains that yes, he did become a writer, and though he had some success to his name, he was no Chekhov. Not an insurmountable obstacle when your cast and director are this well in tune.

Also with Richard Herron.

Box Score:

Writing: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Set: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2001 David Mackler