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Community Disservice


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A Yard of Sun

Famous Door Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

Just before the second weekend of Famous Door's A Yard of Sun, cast member Larry Neumann Jr. landed unexpectedly in the hospital. The company canceled all four shows that weekend and the following Thursday and Friday performances. Considering that Neumann's character doesn't appear until page 91 of Christopher Fry's 110-page script, when he mumbles a few incidental lines before disappearing, then returns to deliver exactly 28 lines before the play ends, it's hard at first to fathom why Famous Door deemed him irreplaceable. But having seen the show, I now realize that Neumann is the sole cast member who might rescue this production from overearnest sentimentality.

Fry, a British playwright, set his 1970 "summer comedy" in a Siena courtyard in July 1946. The play opens on the day before the Palio, an extravagant festival dating back to the 14th century that includes a horse race: riders from each of Siena's 17 wards compete to bring glory to their district. The event is a source of overweening local pride, and this particular Palio--the first since Italy's humiliating defeat in World War II--may help ameliorate the city's burden of shame and guilt. Fry dramatizes the war's moral aftermath in the three Bruno brothers: Roberto, a former resistance fighter turned Marxist-leaning physician who will treat only the downtrodden, thus rendering himself financially unable to treat anyone; Luigi, a former Blackshirt turned junior politician hoping to cast off his inglorious past like yesterday's underwear and align himself with the ascendant party; and Edmondo, the errant self-described "internationalist" who made a fortune selling arms to both Axis and Allied powers.

As in the other three plays of his "seasonal" series (of which the best known is The Lady's Not for Burning), Fry creates a sweeping, poetic portrait of a community trying to forge a new identity, leaving no one out of the struggle; everyone in this quarter of Siena carries some measure of guilt. It seems that during the war an unknown member of the community inadvertently tipped off the SS as to the whereabouts of a neighbor, Cesare Scapare, leading to his capture and imprisonment, and in Chekhovian fashion the neighborhood's unspoken remorse drives the action. Though Fry develops the story of the Bruno brothers in great detail, the community itself is the protagonist of his play.

Yet it's precisely this sense of community that director Marc Grapey and his cast of 15 leave nearly undeveloped. Typical products of American culture, they focus on creating characters at the expense of the milieu. They concoct and display attitudes so rigid that the characters are barely able to respond to one another, let alone the disastrous events preceding the action. Their attitudes having solidified into facades, the actors guard them jealously as though interaction might shatter them. They fuss and fidget, crossing back and forth all evening to no particular end, trying to find their way into the play, yet remain adamantly apart from one another even when standing face-to-face. It's hard to believe that these people are neighbors, let alone members of the same family.

Part of the problem is Grapey's apparent effort to lighten this dark play. The preshow music, which sounds as if it's been snatched from a 1960s Mario Lanza romantic comedy, fuels the unfortunate opening montage: a handful of characters scurry about in various bits of "business" while laundry on clotheslines is jerked across the stage in time to the music. This excessively cute prelude is misleading. Sure, Fry calls A Yard of Sun a comedy, but then Chekhov said the same about The Sea Gull.

Even more problematic is Grapey's insistence on turning Fry's blank verse into realistic dialogue, which requires a false conversational inflection in lines meant as poetry and makes almost everything the actors say sound stilted. It also keeps them so glued to their characters' literal personal dilemmas that the lyrical expanse of this poetic drama remains undeveloped. The performers are left to believe in the play in much the way that soap-opera actors believe in melodrama.

That is, until Neumann enters. From the moment he appears as Cesare Scapare, returning to Siena in rags from a prisoner-of-war camp, he establishes an entire history. Suddenly a community forms; Neumann visibly defines his relationships with everyone onstage. The power relations among these people, which until now have merely been discussed, become palpably real. And in his final 28 lines, Neumann elucidates Fry's poetry without sacrificing his drama.

Neumann's superb performance would be exceptional in almost any American production of this play, because we live in a culture that tends to view history as personal history; social events and trends become real only when we've "put a face on them." Collective reality is not of much interest to a nation of rugged individualists for whom "community politics" are deeply suspect. But with a play like A Yard of Sun, the collective must inform the personal and render it meaningful. Without a collective sensibility, you've got a group of isolated individuals pulling faces.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still/ uncredited.

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