Following the death of their father, "The O'Conner Girls" have returned to the family home to divide possessions and to determine what's next in caring for their mother. The home, as realized in Scott Weldin's splendidly finished set, is filled with family history -- portraits on all the walls, a crucifix to accent a dominating Catholicism, and above all, a sense of total familiarity from all of these women, two sisters, their mother, an aunt, toward every cluttered corner, every swing-era song coming from the nostalgia radio station, each past event and current life that they rest on the musty, over-stuffed furniture. Katie Forgette has written a play in which the dramatic topography is virtually flat, but not featureless. There are really no big, dramatic events, no strong storyline leading to a decisive action, few convolutions of plot. Instead, she writes from the eye of a keen observer, rather than an inventor, generously and tenderly revealing commonplace people in ordinary circumstances, and allowing us to experience the same compassion, bemusement and affection that she feels. It's a sweet, witty and thoroughly charming play, and if it lacks great elevation, it compensates with plentiful detail and distinct, familiar personalities.
Since the play begins as the family returns from the funeral, the central parent is the widow Sarah, played with solidity and quiet certainty by Zoaunne LeRoy. One readily sees that she has been defined by her role as a wife and mother for many years, and that she now has choices that she's never had before. Unfortunately, those choices will primarily concern things she is likely to lose, first her husband, then her possessions, her home, and possibly her mind. This is not a woman who easily gives up anything, as evidenced by the carefully chosen clutter of her dÈcor, and by her adamant refusal to be "cared for" the way her daughter Martha cared for her husband in his last months. She will use this newfound, and perhaps last, independence to travel to Europe.
That's a very disquieting idea to Martha, who's been a dutiful daughter and caregiver at some great cost to herself. Martha, played with unfussy grace by Kate Purwin, does a lovely job of creating a character who has selflessly given herself to her responsibilities, and while not overwhelmed or dominated by resentment, is fully aware that she has borne an unfair share of difficult duties. As with most people in that position, we are also aware that there are intrinsic rewards and personal gratifications, as well as suggestions of a willing if not entirely conscious martyrdom, that make it a worthwhile decision. Here again, what would usually be an obvious issue to become a major dramatic conflict is subsumed in character, deepening our understanding of Martha without having to be a major point of contention. Martha seems to accept her circumstance in the same way that she accepts her modest achievements in life, and while she cannot help but compare herself with her sister, there is more contrast than conflict.
Liz is the twin sister whom Martha believes has gone on to a bigger, more successful life as a real estate agent in California. Liz has always been the one who made Martha feel inadequate in comparison. As we learn, however, Liz's success includes three failed marriages, the latest of which she is still in the process of recovering from, an apparent fondness for liquor, and a rather sad desperation at her inability to adjust to aging, and to no longer being the knockout that turns every head when she enters the room. Cynthia Lauren Tewes is marvelous in this role, bringing real dimension to a character who could easily have been trite and cliched. Instead, we see a real woman, an adult, responsible woman who recognizes that when beauty fades, it is character that remains, and that it is in the reflection of her character where the most disturbing bags and sags and wrinkles are seen. Ms. Tewes and Ms. Purwin allowed these two sisters to give us definition by contrast, so that while Liz loses prestige and grows in depth, Martha gains appeal and grows in stature.
All the more important when the desirable young doctor, a childhood romance, returns as an eligible bachelor who still clearly remembers both of these sisters. Hans Altwies is stalwart and decent, but the role is seriously underwritten, and he seems rather more of a marker than a fully dimensional man.
That's certainly not the case with the irrepressible Aunt Margie. This is the sort of role that Laura Kenny eats up. She's big and loud and unable to restrain anything before she's already said it. In addition to providing great gusts of energy and boisterous fun to a fairly staid environment, she also prevents the tone from becoming too self-important or ponderous. She also gets many of Katie Forgette's best crafted lines.
There are numerous and fairly obvious problems with this play, and it shows many of the marks of a young playwright. The premise; a family reuniting after the death of a parent, is hardly fresh. Some of the lines feel a bit over-polished and too neatly contrived. There are some passive choices that rather diffuse the dramatic conflict. For example, the deceased father "lost his spark" and we never really find out why, nor does that seem to have had a great impact on his family. Such an essentially and definitively conflicted relationship is present in this play mostly as wasted potential. Similarly, when the mutually desired doctor makes an unexpected choice in his romantic interest, the reaction is somewhere between subdued and indifferent. The play's action all lacks a sense of climax, and even if it isn't necessary to have some great, defining action, it would have strengthened the play to have an insight or recognition that fundamentally changes one of the key relationships. The play would benefit greatly from giving us something about which we could say, "Ah, it all leads to this".
And yet, for all those basic, structural problems, "The O'Conner Girls" is memorable and compelling, and this quiet, intimate home feels real and lived-in. Katie Forgette may have missed some dramaturgic points, but aided by the faultless direction of Christine Sumption, she gives the lives of these women so much heart and commonplace significance that we are drawn irresistibly to the fading light of this home, and the twilight of a family. It feels like a place where lives have been led.
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