A Song For My Father by David Budbill. Directed by Eric Peterson
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Tim Dugan, Janis Young and Gary Allan Poe in rehearsal; photo: Robert Sugarman
"Youíre stickiní your nose in too far, Bud!"
Death never succeeds in glancing off us lightly. It leaves a heavy mark, a welt that never heals itself. In David Budbillís new play, "A Song For My Father," an adult son recalls his father, their difficult relationship and the fatherís demise in terms that would make Tennessee Williams blush with pride, then wipe away a furtive tear while criticizing life through the bottom of his cocktail glass.
Williams didnít create the memory play but he perfected it with "The Glass Menagerie" and his central character Tom who recounts the history of the scenes of that play while stepping in and out of those scenes. Budbill echoes that form nicely in this play. The smoothest possible transitions are made between Randyís narrative spaces and his scene playing and that is all to the good. It is his story, his view of the facts, that makes this play work even though he is a trifle too analytical about the history.
He remembers Frank - his father - with a combination of tenderness, diffidence and scorn. At times his personal movie may be darker than reality; at other times not critical enough. He regards his father as a person of interest but not a person of love and the Frank we meet and get to know is the father he recalls through his own clouded experiences. Now and then his memory allows him to take on some of the blame for moments gone wrong. I think I liked that about him, but Iím not really certain.
This is a son who deserts his family heritage for a life in the wilderness of Vermont. He is a man who travels home when he is absolutely needed and not at other times. He misses a great deal, as he later admits in a final moment that chills an audience into complete silence. It is an awesome experience to sit in the dark, knowing the play has ended and hear nothing, not even the breathing, of a crowd of people sitting near you. This is what the playwright, director and cast have brought to life in Oldcastle Theatre Companyís current production up in Bennington, Vermont.
Randy is played superbly by Tim Dugan. The actor transcends the poetical script and emerges an honest, whole character with flaws, emotional struggles and determination intact. He takes the occasionally flowery script and manages to ground in reality. We believe that this man can flirt and not mean it and not feel disturbed by this. We get close to him when he allows it and observe him at arms distance when he requires it. Dugan manages these changes with a certain honesty mixed with a dramatic flair. For his character this combination works well.
His father is played by Gary Allan Poe, a wonderful actor whose work is completely unknown to me. He makes Frank a sympathetic character even when his story parallels my own fatherís and ought to turn me right off. He knows how to hollow out the atmosphere around himself and insert his stage personality into the gap. Never a false or "acted" moment in his work, he gains sympathy even when he is behaving outrageously. This is a performance that every young actor should see, absorb and learn from before going on to play anything more complex than Tom Sawyer.
Frankís two wives, Ruth and Ivy, are played beautifully by Janis Young whose work as Ivy completely outshines her Ruth for splash, dash and lack oí compash. (Again she so closely mirrors my step-mother it is hard to be objective). As Ruth (my motherís name, by the way) Young shines with sincerity and warmth and a hostility to developing trends that is a stilling force. In these two roles Young moves up into the ten best category in my book. These are performances no one should miss.
The other women in Frankís life, and they are many it would seem, are played by Nahassaiu deGannes, a beautiful woman with a lovely voice and a good sense of characterization. She is fun to watch and delivers nicely as nurse Betty.
Peterson has done a wonderful job shaping this play and moving it along toward its inevitable conclusion. He never alarms with unusual or unneeded setups or movements. Instead he works Randyís "voice-overs" into the fabric of the acted relationships in a seamless fashion that is fascinating. His actors all seem to have benefitted from his personal vision of the play and the end-result is a moving, well-acted, nicely envisioned production that though done on the cheap never looks it at all.
The interesting and workable set has been designed by Richard Howe, the perfect costumes created by Deborah Paterson and the excellent and evocative lighting by Keith Chapman.
This play moved its audience, including me, to a silence that is a tribute to the collaborative efforts of all involved. A difficult play, one that could have been better written but satisfies nonetheless, it brings out the interesting in everyone: the interesting thoughts, reactions, motivations and emotions. Joining the finest theater of the season, and there have been some excellent new works presented in the region all summer long, "A Song For My Father" is another of those absolutely must see plays.
Remember I said that.
A Song For My Father plays through September 5 for the Oldcastle Theatre Company at Bennington Center for the Arts, Route 9 at Gypsy Lane, in Bennington, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564.