AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

TheatreWorks has an impressive record of developing new works that have gone on to national acclaim. The most recent feather in its cap is "Memphis," this year's Tony winner for best musical. "Memphis" was a product of the company's annual New Works Festival, a summer event that brings together playwrights and composers to work on pieces in various stages of development.

"Auctioning the Ainsleys" by Laura Schellhardt, a hit from last year's festival, has moved up to receive its world premiere as the fully staged centerpiece of this year's festival. In one of its publications, TheatreWorks describes it as "a play about people and the objects that own them." The action takes place in a Midwestern auction house occupied by a dysfunctional family.The reclusive matriarch, Alice Ainsley (Diane Dorsey), senses she is dying and hires a young writer, Arthur (Lance Gardner), to record her thoughts.

Three of her adult children -- Annalee (Molly Anne Coogan), Amelia (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Aiden (Liam Vincent) -- live with her and have various roles in the family business. Her fourth -- and eldest -- child, Avery (Heidi Kettenring), has been on her own for 15 years, working the auction circuit after the death of the family patriarch, also an auctioneer.

Alice associates her children and various memories with particular objects, but she's beginning to forget their significance. Hence, they're disappearing from her life. In the meantime, she has decided that auctioning off the house is probably the only way she can get the three resident siblings to move out and become independent. It's also the only way to get Avery to return. Although Aiden so eschews possessions that he doesn't even have places to sit in his downstairs apartment, his sisters have their own unique attachments to various possessions.

The first act, which introduces all of the characters and sets the plot in motion, feels like an absurdist comedy. That feeling is enforced by the excessive, neurotic behavior of the siblings, especially the daughters. The second act works much better as the siblings come to terms with long-held family secrets and consequently come to terms with each other.

Annie Smart's multi-level, revolving set works well. Her costumes, especially for Annalee and Amelia, look like they're from the 1950s even though the play is set "in and around the present," the program says. The music by sound designer Cliff Caruthers often sounds like a toy piano or music box. Lighting is by Paul Toben.

Audience reaction at opening night was wildly enthusiastic. The play itself has much to recommend it, including some very funny lines and an ultimately thought-provoking plot. Nevertheless, the production has some shortcomings, perhaps starting with director Meredith McDonough, who is TheatreWorks' director of new works. The primary problem is that she allows the women playing the daughters to be too strident and shrill, which quickly becomes wearing and off-putting. On the other hand, Gardner provides a solid anchor as Arthur, the scribe who's the catalyst in much of what's revealed. And even though Vincent's Aiden is just as neurotic and vocal as his sisters, he has a better mastery of the character's emotions, making them funny rather than annoying.

It would be interesting to see this play again with a different director and cast, at least where the sisters are concerned.

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