Asheville. Cherry Lane Theatre (see Off Broadway). By Lucy Thurber. Directed by Karen Allen. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.
Asheville in brief:
The only premiere of the five works in Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's summer season of Lucy Thurber plays, Ashville looks at a teenage girl bristling to escape her soul-sucking hometown in rural Massachusetts. Karen Allen directs.
Helen Shaw's group review of The Hill Town Plays:
Playwrights, take heed. As if there weren’t enough to look out for, now you must beware artistic directors bearing gifts. It may seem fantastic—a festival dedicated entirely to your oeuvre. But it’s the gift that keeps on taking since only the rare artist can survive that level of scrutiny. Audience fatigue sets in; any cross-play repetitiveness is thrown into stark relief; weaknesses are ruthlessly exposed. And in the case of Lucy Thurber’s the Hill Town Plays, merely uneven works grow unbearable while interesting ones have to fight for attention amid friendly fire.
On its face, the project is admirable—David Van Asselt’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has begun the Theater: Village festival, which bands together the Cherry Lane, the Axis and the Rattlestick itself for a handsomely produced series around a “playwright or a common theme.” Van Asselt has long been in the tank for Thurber, thus… Thurberpalooza.
The writer frequently returns to autobiography; the Hill Town cycle collects five pieces that touch on a difficult, booze-soaked childhood in quasi-rural Massachusetts. Names and details change across the plays, but they can be seen as (frequently repetitive) chapters in the same woman’s story.
In Scarcity, we follow the tribulations of 11-year-old Rachel; in the vapid Ashville, the author stand-in becomes Celia (Mia Vallet, better than her material), who juggles high school, an awakening sexual identity and a drunken mom. The successfully soapy Where We’re Born takes our heroine—here Lily (transfixing Betty Gilpin)—to college, but vacation brings her home for booze, a few games of catch and a long-awaited
chance to get her cousin’s girlfriend into bed.
By the time the lurid Killers and Other Family rolls around, our protagonist, Elizabeth (Samantha Soule), has acquired a New York address and a blissful lesbian relationship, only to be dragged back into the dark by her visiting brother and his best friend. The revived production is slick, but a near-spoof of the School of Adam Rapp, full of “lyrical” degradation and nontruths about violence. The only actual sequel in the cycle, Stay, tracks Scarcity’s Rachel (Hani Furstenberg), now a lecturer at an ivy-draped campus. God help her students, though. Confronted by a stalker—a suicidal, clairvoyant undergrad—Professor Rachel has grouchy sex with her, endures a very short dark-night-of-the-soul and winds up congratulating herself for choosing love. High-five, Rachel. Now get fired.
Despite some good performances across the festival, only one production is outstanding. Daniel Talbott’s exquisitely cast Scarcity feels like a gift—though it had to fight for my affections, so badly bruised after the other plays. Thurber’s gaze is clearest when looking farthest away: Preteen Rachel (Izzy Hanson-Johnston) has just the right mix of self-obsession, nastiness and terror. (It’s the only time we don’t wince when someone trumpets the author-avatar's intelligence. Five plays harping on it makes Thurber seem very insistent on this point.)
Crucially in Scarcity, center stage actually belongs to Rachel’s mother, Martha (the nonpareil Deirdre O’Connell), a scrappy broad who still thinks she can wrestle husband Herb (Gordon Joseph Weiss) and son Billy (Will Pullen) into some kind of accord. We can see that Herb’s drunken demands for a kiss bode ill for little Rachel, and Billy’s machinations for escape to a fancy high school reveal him to be a sexually manipulative desperado. But for once, Thurber lets dread hover tantalizingly, and Martha, foolish and loving, becomes a kind of bezoar, a philosopher’s stone. Her sweetness lets us drain a cup we know is poison.
Of the others, only Where We’re Born merits a visit. If you do see only these two, you’ll look on Thurber with a far kinder eye than I. And really, she deserves that. She just doesn’t deserve a festival; I’ve begun to think no one does. It’s a Trojan horse, Lucy. You shouldn’t have let it in.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
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