THE LONG AWAITED
Victory Gardens Theater
In The Long Awaited, Claudia Allen proves only too well how deeply she cares about her characters. She cares with the same feel-good intensity that goes into the most heartfelt Hallmark card. She's so fond of these people that no real-life conflict jostles them, even when conflict might have defined for us who they are. Her slice of life is dished up from an omniscience where, it seems, to know all is to forgive all--so why start fights you don't mean?
Allen's all-compassionate perspective does allow her to inject a ton of poignancy into this love-in. At her homespun best, she seems to have just sat back and allowed these characters to quietly talk themselves into life. At her worst, she undermines that naturalness with self-conscious exposition.
Set in a small Michigan town in 1977, the play focuses on Bessie Shunk Ferguson, a saintly middle-aged woman who, aware that "everything we do has consequences," has spent most of her life serving a vicious, now divorced, husband (never shown perhaps because he would provide conflict); a teenage son who lives only to bowl, install mufflers, and flirt with the local girls; and, above all, Winifred, Bessie's mother, now slowly dying in what used to be a living room. Bessie, aware of how much she owes this once-vibrant woman, refuses to bury her mother in a nursing home; instead she talks to the semi-comatose woman as if Winifred could still hear her--and in return receives only groans and random mumblings.
But it's not just Winifred's death that is "long awaited." For Bessie, it's love. On this steamy summer day it finally arrives in the unlikely form of an old friend. Marvin Kemp is an Army sergeant who supposedly has spent 25 years trying to catch Bessie's brother Vernon, a deserter from Korea. This time Marvin gets his man, because Vernon, who long ago fled to Florida, has left his hideout in order to see his mother before she dies. But the real reason Marvin drove from Texas is Bessie. He's loved her for years, and now, his wife having finally died, he intends to marry her--if she can stop being selfless long enough to let him.
Marvin is soon (and improbably) joined by his daughter Arvilla, who also wants to join the Army--but who's really here to ask questions that will let the others spill their souls and to provide a half-baked love interest for the son.
However contrivedly Allen assembles them (and too little is at stake here to justify six evenly developed characters), she certainly knows what she wants them to show--how one way or another they have to let go of past pain.
Sad sack Vernon, who declares that his life is "brimming over with regrets," must forgive himself, both for so hating the Army that he's squandered his life as a fugitive and for not having helped Bessie to care for Winifred. Arvilla must forgive herself for wasting time getting a master's degree when the career she truly aspired to was her dad's. Marvin must forgive himself for loving Bessie while his own wife was dying. Bob must forgive himself for resenting his grandmother for taking so long to die and, I guess, for having the bad taste to enjoy being a tiny person in a small town. Above all, Bessie must forgive herself for being too good to be true to her self; when her mother finally dies (so quietly that the long-awaited event goes unnoticed), Bessie is at last free, as the play editorializes, to enjoy her own life by living for herself as well as others. (Just what 80s audiences want to hear.)
Though the characters suffer from meandering and scattershot development, entirely too much distilled wisdom, and a predictability that caters to the wishful thinking of the audience, Allen does provide lots of loving details and some cunning small-town small talk. And Sandy Shinner's very caring Victory Gardens Theater world premiere polishes it all very nicely.
Given the cue that the easygoing son's "slow motor reflexes" kept him out of Vietnam, Chuck Hall supplies just the right lanky laziness. Meg Thalken's Arvilla makes much of a scene in which she plays cards with Vernon only to grill him about the Army he abandoned (in effect trying to work out her rationale for signing up). Thanks to Bob O'Donnell's wryly deadpan acting, Vernon is one sick mope who ends up a very sympathetic loser.
Finally, the play's accumulated love interest isn't wasted on Mary Ann Thebus and Ned Schmidtke. Though the playwright fails to establish why Bessie is so scared of love (unless it's to provide tension to a play that sorely lacks it), Thebus grounds her hardworking semisaint in a very real domestic solidity; just the way Thebus keeps her hands at her sides--until the end--suggests a world of devoted denial (and recalls the still, strong wife she recently played so beautifully in Northlight Theatre's Love Letters on Blue Paper). Making a virtue out of his character's predictability, Schmidtke's sergeant offers just the kind of unforced decency you know will win Bessie over.
Claudia Boddy's costumes are, alas, very accurate to the 70s, and Jeff Bauer's living/dying room set teems, like the script, with the accumulated testaments of Bessie's deeply lived life.