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A Summer Remembered/A Christmas Carol

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A SUMMER REMEMBERED

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Goodman Theatre

The December Stagebill quotes Steve Eich calling A Summer Remembered "a sweet, nostalgic story." As Steppenwolf's managing director Eich may want to promote the show as a warm and fuzzy holiday diversion; happily, as director of the play Eich will have none of this. He knows, and his staging shows, that there's precious little sweetness in Charles Nolte's flawed but frequently compelling drama about a family, and a world, at a painful turning point.

Nolte was a teacher of Eich's at the University of Minnesota, which is where Eich first read this 1979 play. Nolte's program bio says that he "has had experience in theater as an actor, director, librettist for operas, and as a teacher." Notably absent from that list is "playwright," and A Summer Remembered feels like a singular work by a writer with a special story to tell. But if it suffers from the mistakes of an unseasoned playwright--too many characters, too many story ideas left undeveloped, too much aphorizing, too many conflicts conveniently arranged to climax at the same time--it also vibrates with the author's personal investment and, in Eich's staging, with some of the most vivid, finely tuned, and just plain convincing performances seen on Steppenwolf's stage in quite some time.

At a summer cottage in a Minnesota lakefront town, the Washburn clan--closely knit despite differences in outlook and emotional makeup--gather in the summer of 1938, as they have many previous summers. The year is a telltale sign of impending change: we know that when the family gathers again next summer--if indeed it does--the world will be at war. (In case we don't get it, the characters repeatedly refer to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach": "And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.")

It's hardly surprising that cantankerous and epigrammatic old Doctor Washburn, the bearded patriarch, shows signs of incipient illness (move Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy over one bed in that cancer ward). Or that his faithful and frail wife Mildred is gradually succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Or that Washburn's husky teenage grandson Ted is torn between a sports scholarship to Yale and an early plunge into sex, marriage, and a job. (In any case we can assume he'll be shipped overseas in a few years, perhaps to an early death.) And since Ted's macho dad Henry Durham--who has taken over the Washburn clan by force of his aggressive personality--desperately wants Ted to go to college so he can be a football star before taking over the family hardware business, it's obvious from the play's earliest scenes that there will be a heavy-duty battle over Ted's choice. (Don't forget that "ignorant armies" quote.) Meanwhile Washburn's spinsterish son Ollie, a witty but wimpy James Thurber wannabe, moons shyly over a neighbor, prickly Rose Buckley (in a script like this, anyone who wants something this much is destined not to get it).

Distress, disillusion, and dependency are the order of the day; in this play, the family that flays together stays together. Yet despite Nolte's predictable arrangements of characters and crises, A Summer Remembered is interesting and generally moving thanks to the playwright's and performers' well-observed characterizations. Scenes that could have been laughably obvious play sharply and vividly, with a specificity that makes their universality powerful. Rose's letdown of Ollie, as enacted by Martha Lavey and the superb Thomas Carroll, is touchingly inarticulate; these intelligent people, who would mock such a scene in a movie, are painfully tongue-tied when they find themselves in the same situation. Henry's rage at Ted's adolescent defiance makes for a stunning sequence: the hitherto flippant Gary Cole as Henry summons up an impressive rage, and Scott Benjaminson responds with a puppyish weakness. Here Cole and Benjaminson's interaction, the other actors' suddenly silent reactions, even the level and pacing of the sounds--a slapping belt and slamming doors--from inside the house perfectly capture the way family intimacy shivers yet holds in such a situation.

The rest of the cast matches the fine work mentioned above. As expected, Cole, Lavey, Robert Breuler, and Lucina Paquet as the Washburns, Barbara Robertson as Henry's insecure but determined wife Flo, and Jim True as an intrusive cousin attracted to Nazi idealism (a potentially interesting but undeveloped role) are excellent. But audiences are likely to be most impressed by such little-known or new actors as Carroll, Benjaminson, the deliciously funny Kara Zediker as a bobby-soxer-to-be in hormonal overdrive, and Todd Spicer as Ted's preteen brother Crawford, in whose memory the summer is taking shape. (Nolte's work as an opera librettist is anticipated in Crawford's fascination with opera, and Henry's bullying disdain for Crawford's bookishness is one of the play's running themes--like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, there's much more to Crawford than meets the eye.)

Eich's superb handling of the ensemble is complemented by Michael Merritt's expansive, detailed set (the lawn and front porch of a house that seems to go on forever), Kevin Rigdon's sensitively shifting lighting, Nan Cibula-Jenkins's period-perfect costumes, and Richard Woodbury's moody sound design.

Tom Mula, having taken over the role of Ebenezer Scrooge from William J. Norris in Goodman Theatre's annual A Christmas Carol, has stayed about as far away from Norris's interpretation as he can. Mula's Scrooge is cunningly comic--watch him drum out a threatening martial rhythm with his fingers as he prepares to punish his clerk Cratchit or distastefully shake the dust from his little-used wallet--but he can also get mean and real. Instead of Norris's protracted, infectious laugh, Mula conveys Scrooge's climactic transformation with a long, genuinely touching release of the physical tension accumulated through years of miserly ill temper.

But Mula's Scrooge is only part of the reason Goodman's production feels so fresh and vital in this 14th annual staging. Director Steve Scott seems to have rethought the entire work; without making radical changes, he and his cast have explored different nuances in Dickens's portrait of the pathology of acquisitiveness. Terence Gallagher is especially sensitive as Scrooge's ever-optimistic nephew Fred, and his encounters with Scrooge suggest layers of feeling beneath the familiar dialogue. So does the failed courtship of young Scrooge (Ray Chapman) and Belle (Joan Elizabeth), the girl Scrooge loses when money takes top priority. (Elizabeth's Belle is not the typical ingenue--she's awkward and funny instead, like Marilynn Bogetich as the wife of Mr. Fezziwig, a characterization that highlights the happy future Scrooge could have had if he'd followed in Fezziwig's generous footsteps.)

The rethinking goes beyond the acting. Larry Schanker's Christmas-carol arrangements are subtler and more delicate, and Tom Creamer's revised script more fully embraces Dickens's unnervingly relevant study of a society in which only the very rich are insulated from financial distress--and his message that economic reform is impossible without moral rehabilitation among people of power. This Christmas Carol is right for the recession.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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