Family Affair

Invisible Theatre presents a comedy about dynastic disruption.

In most stories of dynastic disintegration, the family starts to fray at the younger generations. But in A.R. Gurney's Ancestral Voices, it's Grandma who upsets everything by running off with her husband's best friend. That's the first of several gentle little surprises in the current play at Invisible Theatre.

Ancestral Voices recounts this familial flap from the point of view of preteen grandson Eddie. The setting is Buffalo, N.Y., around the start of World War II. What Eddie's teacher calls the "bruise" of Axis power is spreading across the map, the once-proud Buffalo is a decaying city on an old canal, and Eddie's privileged WASP family is trying to hold together despite the disruption at its top.

This is a comedy, by the way, but not one that grasps at punch lines. It's a small, wistful "chamber play," the five actors seated on stage with their scripts in front of them, in the manner of Love Letters, the hugely popular epistolary play that has probably assured the Gurney family's financial security for generations to come.

In Ancestral Voices, the characters don't exchange letters. They actually converse, although director Gail Fitzhugh has the actors play to the audience rather than to each other, except for two moving instances of eye contact near the end.

Eddie narrates the story of how his grandmother took up with a man now wedged uncomfortably into the family, while his grandfather salves his emotional wounds with a steady stream of Old Fashioneds and his parents do everything they can to keep the family close under extraordinary circumstances.

Knowing this, you'll probably go to the theater and have to buy an extra ticket just to accommodate all your preconceptions. Let's see: The grandmother will be a wanton, sassy free spirit; the grandfather will be a curmudgeon who deserves to be left behind; the script will pile up 90 minutes of manipulative sentimentality and strain mightily to jerk a tear or two at the end.

Well, an usher will soon have to escort your preconceptions to the door. Gurney's play is in no way subversive or innovative, but it manages to be honest and touching and amusing without resorting to easy scriptwriting gimmickry.

The grandmother, for example, is a perfectly ordinary, perfectly appealing woman. Her motives for leaving her husband aren't entirely clear--they wouldn't be to the 12-year-old narrator, after all--but you can infer what she's been missing when she talks about horseback riding, to which her new beau has introduced her. "You feel free when you ride," she says. "You can go anywhere you want." And later, justifying her questionable driving skills, she misquotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There are no second gears in life."

Eddie tries to console his beloved grandfather, an avid outdoorsman who believes in giving his prey a sporting chance, by spending the summer with him deep in the woods, fishing and talking and sorting out the past and present. Floating on multiple layers of nostalgia--Eddie remembering an idyllic summer that involved his grandfather recalling idyllic summers years before--this is the play's most tender episode. Yet Gurney doesn't wring too much out of it, and he certainly doesn't cheapen it by having the old man dead by Christmas, something a more melodramatic playwright wouldn't resist.

Eddie himself is no smug sitcom smart-ass. He's an ordinary kid with conventional interests who happens to find his own family fascinating. If Gurney stumbles at all in his characterizations, it's in making Eddie's parents a bit too Cleaverish, though at a higher social level.

What may not be clear from all this is that Ancestral Voices is a very amusing play, whose character-based humor and straight-faced reminiscences of 1940 country-club haute cuisine (creamed chicken, asparagus on toast) draw warm chuckles rather than knee-slapping guffaws. Even so, and quite properly, it's not individual funny lines that stand out, but the threads of the play's themes: the adults musing on how the world is passing the once-mighty Buffalo by, Eddie trying to find out why salmon swim home to die.

Premiered two years ago, Ancestral Voices is being taken up by theaters around the country delighted to find a play with high audience appeal that can be done on the cheap (no set), with the visible scripts allowing star performers to do short runs on the fly. Invisible Theatre, though, is offering a more anchored production, with a stable cast of fine local actors seated on an actual set, another example of designer James Blair's elegant touch on a presumably limited budget.

If there are any nits to pick with the acting or direction, they would concern, perversely, the sheer consistency of the characterizations. Eddie's mother, Jane, for example, is played by Molly McKasson, in a welcome return to the stage after all those years in local politics. In many scenes, Jane must interact with her son while trying to carry on a conversation with her husband or her mother, and some actresses might choose to differentiate Jane's role as mother, wife and daughter more clearly. But that way schizophrenia lies, and McKasson's portrayal of Jane as a constant, secure if occasionally abashed figure is perfectly sensible.

Similarly, Jesse Michael Mothershed maintains his pre-teen persona even during his narrative passages, which may not be completely logical if we understand Eddie to be looking back on this story from adulthood, but it makes the transitions far less jarring. And it's hard to complain when Mothershed avoids the cutesy cloying of so many adults who play children; he makes Eddie's enthusiasms entirely believable.

Roberto Guajardo is appealing as Eddie's father, a man whose sense of irony tempers his self-awareness as the family's "prince consort." Jetti Ames strikes all the right notes as the grandmother, and Manny Ferris explores every the shade of the grandfather's character, from the slightly slurred speech of a jilted husband seeking solace in cocktails to the genial calm of a man who feels most secure in a boat with a fishing pole in his hand and his grandson at his side. Ferris also does a good John Houseman impersonation as the grandmother's new husband.

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