Scene from THE COUNTRY HOUSE at Melbourne Civic Theatre. Photo by Max Thornton.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Throughout the sturm und drang raging between the characters in “The Country House,” audiences may have a difficult time distinguishing who’s right and who’s wrong.
Those richly written, multi-layered characters drew Melbourne Civic Theatre director Peg Girard to produce “The County House,” which runs through April 28.
Rachel Greshes, who gives life to the role of Nell in the Donald Margulies drama, echoes that sentiment.
“His characters are flawed and seem true to life,” Greshes said. “I love that when I read his work, I’m never quite sure whose side I’m on.”
Set in the present day in a country home in the Berkshires, the play focuses on an extended family of the theater gathered during the celebrated Williamstown Theatre Festival. This group is headed up by matriarch Anna Patterson, a much-revered actress, who laments that there are stars on Broadway but no longer any real Broadway stars.
Also gathered are Patterson’s son Elliot, her granddaughter Susie, an actor friend Michael, her former son-in-law Walter who is a film director, and his new girlfriend Nell.
At first, you may conjure memories of the Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman comedy “The Royal Family,” or even MCT’s production last season of “It’s Only a Play.”
But unlike the unbridled comedies those are, this has a deeper current and one that sharpens the forced gaiety: It is the first time they have gathered since Patterson’s daughter, Kathy, passed away.
The characters here, in the midst of their soirees exhibit desperate searches for meaning and flashes of childishness. In other words, they’re human.
In an interview with the School of Drama at New York City’s The New School, Margulies, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama, said always reaches for empathy.
“Having empathy for people and their predicaments is absolutely essential,” Margulies said. “I have (my students) write a monologue from the point of view of a person they find reprehensible. But I don’t want them to make fun of that person. I want them to give that argument credence. Get inside that person’s head. Do it with dignity.”
A long time fan of Margulies, Terrence Girard said the playwright makes his characters real.
“Margulies’ dialogue is just the way people talk,” Girard said.
Girard has worked on other Margulies’ plays, including “Dinner with Friends” and “Time Stands Still,” which won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize. Girard and his wife Peg, the director, will be seeing Margulies’ newest work “Long Lost” at the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has a rich history as the Broadway birthing room for Margulies’ new works.
Margulies has had a long life in the theater. His collaboration with Joseph Papp and New York’s Public Theatre began in 1984 with the coming of age play “Found a Peanut.” He’s worked with the Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Long Wharf Theatre and so much more. His plays have been produced world-wide.
With “The Country House,” he turned his sights on that world. In fact, the play has been referred to as a “love letter to the theater” and all its inhabitants.
As the play begins, Susie Keegan, played by Lily Porter sits on a couch in a comfy setting designed here by Alan Selby. So engrossed in her cell phone, she doesn’t even acknowledge a car has pulled up.
Enter the character of Anna Patterson, played by Susan Suomi, who rather lavishes the stage with grand gesture and flowing, gossamer costumes, organized here by Michael Fiore.
Within a handful of lines, the audience finds out that someone important has passed away and that they are dearly missed. We eventually learn that the person is Kathy, Susie’s mother and Patterson’s daughter.
But then comes the announcement that famed TV actor, handsome Michael Astor, played by Michael Paul, will be spending a few days at the country house. Susie is immediately intrigued.
Astor enters and talks about Kathy, who raises the question that perhaps he is Susie’s father. That of course would add a wrinkle because Susie has always had a crush on him, giving resonance to an otherwise casual question.
Then there is Elliot, played by Kevin S. McCaughin. Elliot is a failed actor who says he is now a playwright because he has finished writing his first play.
More steam is added with the entrance of theater director turned action movie director Walter Keegan, who was married to Kathy and who is now engaged to Nell, whom he has brought along.
Susie gets aggravated. Patterson tries to reclaim her youth. Elliot pouts. They all want more. They all misbehave.
They’re all a little Chekhovian.
In fact, Margulies and critics alike have pointed to influences by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
Within the sense of yearning for something “out there,” look at “Three Sisters” and their constant desire to go to Moscow. In “The Cherry Orchard,” a grieving family come together and realize their loss is more than they first realized.
But in comparison to “The Country House” Chekhov’s “The Seagull” parallels the most with its characters of a self-absorbed mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress and her son, Konstantin Tréplev, a wannabe playwright and who storms off in a pouting temper tantrum.
In an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, Margulies said: “I had wanted to do a backstage comedy. I wanted to contribute to that theater tradition. And I wanted to write something more comedic. My plays are funny but they are pretty heavy. This play is also funny and very dramatic.”
But rather than plot out a play ahead of time, Margulies lets them evolve. And in writing this, he realized that the play was a about grief and how people cope with it, so he dedicated the play to his friend, the late actress Dana Reeve, wife to the late Christopher Reeve.
“She just haunted me while I was writing it,” he said in the magazine interview. “Dana’s spirit for me became Kathy. She became this missing person.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Country House” runs through April 28. Tickets are $29 and $31. MCT is at 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Call 321-723-6935 or visit MyMCT.org or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider.