Ancestral Voices, Thirsty Theater, at the Big House. Like his Love Letters, A.R. Gurney's Ancestral Voices is a chamber play, performed with each actor seated behind a microphone and reading from a script mounted on a music stand. This arrangement makes the work a perfect fit for the Big House's cozy upstairs room, where the play is receiving its Chicago premiere courtesy of the Thirsty Theater.
The loneliness of the New England upper crust--Gurney's favorite theme--is represented here by a surnameless clan in Buffalo, New York, during the turbulent years before World War II. When the family matriarch divorces and remarries, her children must orchestrate family events with an eye to keeping their estranged elders apart. The one who suffers most from this and other repercussions of the divorce is her young grandson, who narrates the story.
Creating dramatic action with nothing but words is hard, and the ensemble gathered by director Mitch Newman seemed a bit unsure of themselves on opening night (except for retired history professor Bernard Weisberger, who gave his role as the jilted grandfather gusto and compassion). And Gurney's yarn is steeped in its time and the privileges of its characters' class. But there's enough of the common American experience in it to keep us anticipating each new complication in the saga.