• by Sarah Teach •
Consider yourself cordially invited to sink into the comfy seats at White Heron Theatre Company (WHTC) and enjoy the latest work of American playwright A. R. Gurney. Family Furniture curtsies before an audience for the first time since its premiere at the Flea Theater in New York City last fall.
With WHTC’s characteristic black box set, imaginations can travel where they please inside A. R. Gurney’s setting. It’s 1952, and Dad, Mom, Brother, and Sister make up the model American family. The post-WWII establishment of suburbs is drawing distinct lines between the poor and everyone else; and this story’s characters, with their dual home ownership and cashmere cardigans, are decidedly wealthy. As is often the case with moneyed people who do not wish to think of themselves as isolated, the Family Furniture crew does not honestly address their wealth. But that’s not the only issue that this WASP family dances around.
Though WASPs are a curious crowd, they would never say so themselves. And that’s kind of the point of being one. Normalcy within one’s own social circle is sought after like godliness in a nunnery. Select deviations are acceptable, so long as they are carried out discreetly. These are indeed people who have their serious conversations while sailing off of their waterfront properties. They do send their daughters to Vassar and bristle at the phrase “pissed off.” Family Furniture, like many of A. R. Gurney’s plays, is about this particular American social subset, and the nature of their relationships with one another and the rest of the world. Middle-aged parents Claire (LeeAnne Hutchinson) and Russell (Conan McCarty) aim to create mini versions of themselves in their children. And they’ve already succeeded, to some degree. (Only in WASP country would a sexually charged young man include the word “moreover” in his excited cries.) Though Peggy (Marina Bousa) and Nick (Max Roll) may rebel now, there are no doubts in their parents’ minds that they’ll return to the WASPs’ nest sooner or later, even if some guidance is required.
Gurney reminds us that not every aspect of WASP life is unique. We know that any father can match Russell’s delight in embarrassing his daughter by singing. Gurney also touches on hypocrisy in relationships, which infiltrates every social group in the world. Claire claims she hopes her son Nick is being intimate with his girlfriend Betsy, but acts appalled when she finds out that indeed, that glorious day has come. Nick and Peggy are both scorned by their parents for carrying on romantic relationships that do not fit the family’s social mold, but Claire herself is having an extramarital affair! Perhaps the fully-fledged adults in the story forgive Claire’s liaison because her lover is a fellow tennis-playing WASP. One of the few topics that are completely out in the open is the family’s willingness to sacrifice (money, in the case of their furniture) to maintain familial underpinnings. Even so, Claire paints over the past and keeps it only on her terms, despite her declarations about the importance of inherited traditions.
Claire, whose coiffed blonde hair and mid-Atlantic accent tell an immediate story about her pedigree, and Russell, whose “genteel decrees” judge people by their dinnertime fork-holding methods, seem like old friends, not lovers. Claire dismisses her husband’s unreciprocated passion like she’s brushing a fly off her shoulder. The cause of her affair cannot be that she is bored with her lifestyle; otherwise, she would have shacked up with Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Perhaps she truly does crave extraction from her stuffy existence, but convention only allows that she get the same flavor from a different bakery.
Gurney serves us some delightful bits of the ’50s, sprinkled with ample period music that is surely the product of his nostalgia. Nick, with slicked-down and side-parted hair, discusses a fish that put up a “nifty fight,” while Claire, who is called not “Mom” but “Mother,” silkily refers to the family’s icebox. In 1952, Gurney was 22, which is right about the time we finally see our parents as real people rather than just Mom and Dad. It seems likely that Gurney wrote Family Furniture as a tribute to his own youth, with the intention of showing that the era may have been different, but it was not necessarily “a simpler time.”
Lynne Bolton, founder and Artistic Director of WHTC, directs Family Furniture. Callie Barber, who is an energetic Betsy, is a company member with WHTC and a graduate of the New Actors Workshop in New York City. Marina Bousa, whose dance and choreography talent was seen at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, plays Peggy. Bowden Award-winning LeeAnne Hutchinson, who can also be seen on Nantucket this summer at WHTC’s Miracle on South Division Street, plays Claire. Conan McCarty, another Edinburgh veteran, is a believable Russell. British actor Max Roll, who holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama, plays Nick with an incredible command of American pronunciation. Family Furniture‘s running time is one hour and 40 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.
White Heron Theatre Company is Nantucket’s professional repertory theatre. See Family Furniture and more all summer long under the tent at 5 North Water Street. Tickets are $42.50 at whiteherontheatre.org or by calling the box office at 508-825-5268.