Monday, April 18, 2016

Theater Review: Lewiston -- Long Wharf

Randy Danson and Arielle Goldman. Poto: T. Charles Erickson
Visiting a Family Rooted to Their Land and Each Other
By Lauren Yarger
The roots of family trees are strong. They anchor people as well as the themes and settings of the plays by Samuel D. Hunter, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

Lewiston, receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, is no exception. Hunter returns to his native Idaho for a tale of a family, whose rich soil has been eroded by years of separation following a tragedy and by the selling off of land. (It also marks a return home for former Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, who directs this production.)

Selling off the land, piece by piece, is how Alice (Randy Danson) has been getting by for years. The cheap fireworks stand she operates near the Snake River certainly doesn’t pay the bills. Friend and boarder Connor (Martin Moran) lends his advice and services to try to help her be more profitable, but safety regulations make it impossible to sell fireworks that have any real explosive qualities any more (there are some very cool pyro effects that behave on cue), so sales are slow despite pending Fourth-of-July celebrations.

A different kind of explosion rocks Alice’s world, however, when long-estranged granddaughter Marnie (Arielle Goldman) shows up, stakes a tent and offers to buy the remaining family acres with profits from selling an urban farm she developed. Alice announces that she already has decided to sell the land, which has been in their family for six generations, to developers, however.

Deep-seeded resentments sprout for Marnie: Who is this Connor freeloading off of Alice? Why didn’t her grandmother stay in touch with her after her mother committed suicide? Marnie tries to find some meaning in audio tapes recorded by her mother during her last nature hike (the voice is supplied by Lucy Owen). The results are surprising with Connor deciding to plant himself in a new place -- Pocatello, where he might find himself eating at an Italian restaurant in Hunter’s other play about people discovering family bonds – and grandmother and granddaughter finding themselves entwined in the branches of a family tree too strong to chop down, despite their best attempts.

While the story is moving, the presentation is a bit disjointed. First, the setting (designed by Wilson Chin) has a beach quality– which could be confusing since Lewiston, ME is well known and, well just about any town in Idaho, is not. Later dialogue about cattle ranches and then a hike to the Pacific Ocean leave us wondering where exactly this action is taking place (unless we are fortunate enough to have read the setting information in the program or know that Hunter’s plays tend to be in Idaho).

We have no idea at first whose voice we are hearing on the tapes (or in fact that they are recorded tapes) or what this dialogue has to do with the rest of what we are seeing. There’s also an odd popping sound (design by Brandon Wolcott) from behind the set that sounds like hot pipes expanding, making us think we should get ready for a large fireworks explosion, but ultimately which isn’t connected to action on stage.

We also don’t quite get to know these folks well enough to feel invested in their situation. We never fully understand why Alice didn’t maintain a relationship with Marnie, or what exactly her relationship with Connor is. Marnie is a naturalist vegetarian, but smokes and has a tattoo? So a bit more growth and pruning is needed to shape this family-tree saga.

But, as with all of Hunter’s plays, like his wonderful Drama Desk and Obie Award winning The Whale, which featured an isolated 600-pound man, Hunter shares compelling moments with people “who don’t normally get written about,” according to Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. The actors’ strong performances here keep us interested, but make us wish Ting lit more sparks flying between them.

Lewiston runs at Long Wharf's Stage II through May 1. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $26-$85; www.longwharf.org203-787-4282.

Additional Credits: Costume Design by  Paloma Young , Lighting Design by Matthew Richards

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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