A wisp of nostalgia is currently floating over Midtown Manhattan. On 42nd street, the setting for remembrance is a beach town along the shores of Lake Erie in 1945. Signature Theater’s revival of A.R. Gurney’s 1981 play What I Did Last Summer is a touching slice of drama bursting at the seams with an impeccable cast and plenty of food for both the soul and mind.
Set near the end of World War II, What I Did Last Summer introduces us to Charlie (Noah Galvin), a precocious 14 year old, his sister Elsie (Kate McGonigle), his best friend Ted (Pico Alexander), and later, his love interest Bonnie (Juliet Brett). Guiding their path is his frustrated, but devoted and rather uptight mother, Grace (Carolyn McCormick) whose husband is overseas fighting in the war.
In his effort to gain summer employment, Charlie, much to the dismay of his mother, seeks a job with Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen) , otherwise known as “the pig woman”. Trumbull is the town’s kooky bohemian who gives art lessons (but as we learn, nobody takes them.) In her younger days, Grace was a student of Trumbull but wishes to put the memory behind her. Charlie arranges frequent visits to the outcast, who is desperate to teach him the ways of an artist. Her attempts are futile, but what he lacks in artistic talent, he makes up for with an open mind and a new world view.
Galvin, who was recently seen downtown in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is unquestionably one of the finest young actors working on a New York stage. With a combination of intensity, focus, and earnestness, he turns out another first rate performance. The character of Charlie could easily become a grating, impetuous twit in the wrong hands. Here, Galvin strikes perfect harmony between anxious adolescence and a hugely likable young man in search of himself and his purpose.
Noone plays “quirky” quite as well as Kristine Nielsen, and once again, she doesn’t disappoint. Nielsen has captured the carefree, anti-establishment spirit of Trumbull, and also evokes Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Trumbull is one who “coulda been a contender” but has allowed life to triumph over her. Now she fights to be recognized.
In fact, every character in Gurney’s memory play is jockeying for attention . As each one introduces themselves, each is certain that the play is about them. Perhaps it is Gurney’s comment on our own humaness; for at our core, we are all seeking the comfort and assurance of being visible and validated.
Director Jim Simpson guides the piece with sentimentality that carefully avoids the syrupy realm. Michael Yeargan’s sparsely modern but efficient set places the intended focus on the story, while Dan Wiener’s perfectly timed drum interludes add an extra ray of delight to this already charm soaked production.
A few blocks north, the quintessential memory play was set afoot in Masterworks Theater Company’s inaugural production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and boy oh boy, was it ever a mixed bag.
Williams’ semi-autobiographical tale of abandonment and unfulfillment proved an audacious choice for a brand new theater company, especially after an acclaimed and Tony award Broadway production played the boards less than two years ago.
Although it is mandatory reading for most high school students, here is a cliffs notes version of the plot. (And let’s face it: Even if did read it in high school, you’ve probably forgotten it by now!) Tom Wingfield (Richard Prioleau) is both the narrator and a player in the story. As the primary breadwinner of his family , he spends day after laboring day at the factory and his nights going to the movies (essentially code for “drinking”). Laura (Olivia Washington), is his younger sister, content to spend her days tinkering with her glass menagerie but too shy and handicapped to endure the delicate nature of romance. Jim O’Conner (Doug Harris), a gentleman caller and colleague to Tom, assuages her fears in a tender moment of inspiration. Amanda Wingfield (Saundra Santiago), is a matriarch of force. As she recalls her younger, more beautiful days she also minimizes her daughter’s struggles and throws fits of dramatic hysteria in an effort to hold her broken family together.
First, let’s highlight the pros: Masterworks choice of multi-cultural casting worked quite well. Prioleau, a handsome African-American actor was a marvelous Tom Wingfield. In him, there is a natural ruggedness and internal struggle which evokes sheer empathy and compassion. Prioleau is a gifted young actor and it will be thrilling to watch his career advance. Likewise, Harris delivered a winning turn as Jim, a popular high school jock whose higher pedigree is a stark contrast than that of the Wingfield clan. Harris’ gesture of kindness to the wounded Laura is played with delicacy and his manners would make any mother target him as in-law material. Campbell Baird’s tattered apartment perfectly evoked depression-era ambience.
While Priloeau and Harris were the stronger portions of this 4 person cast, the same praise could not be shared with their female co-stars. Santiago appeared to be a seasoned actor, given her lengthy program bio which includes Broadway credits and well known television appearances, so she should be given the benefit of the doubt. Here though, she charged through her performance with her foot constantly pressed to the gas pedal, allowing little opportunity for her to gradually increase the intensity of Amanda. Washington also has a tendency to conjure unrealistic anxiety in Laura, specifically upon her first interaaction with Jim.
Masterworks Theater Company appears to be on the right track as they aim to produce classic works in the coming seasons. Founding director Eric Krebs deserves high praise for exposing new audiences to classic works. One can only hope that his team will find collectively talented ensembles so that his recent “mixed bag”, directed by Christopher Scott, will be upgraded to a sack of gold.
What I Did Last Summer is currently playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd street between 9th and 10th). For tickets and information, visit the box office or online at:http://www.signaturetheatre.org/
The Glass Menagerie ended May 30th at the 47th Street Theater (304 West 47th street between 8th and 9th). For more information about Masterworks Theater Company, click http://www.masterworkstheatercompany.org/