By Paul Kolas
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
NORTHBRIDGE — Noted playwright Donald Margulies’ “The County House” owes a lot of debt to Chekov, with its gallery of often pretentious, neurotic, insecure, egocentric, cynical and romantically deluded characters.
The fulcrum of Pilgrim Soul Productions’ consistently absorbing, marvelously acted, and succinctly directed staging of this bittersweet and pungently witty ode to the theatrical world is represented by Anna Patterson (Carol Allard Vancil), a celebrated actress in her twilight years who now spends her summers as the leading lady of the Williamstown Theater Festival. Anna is still mourning the death of her daughter Kathy, a successful actress in her own right, who succumbed to lung cancer a year ago, and Anna has invited her family and some friends to her country home in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for a reunion that turns out to be a contentious and emotionally volatile occasion.
And as directed with flowing and compelling precision by Matthew J. Carr, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour showcase of finely delineated performances by actors playing actors, directors and would-be playwrights.
Among them are Anna’s granddaughter Susie (Patti Longeran), who is not in the least bit impressed by the dramatic pretensions of her family and is enveloped in a bitter emotional void since the death of her mother. The resident cynic of the family is Elliot (Chris Erath), whom Kathy affectionately called “Uncle Idiot” as a little girl, a failed actor who is writing his first play in an attempt to override his self-perceived status as the “loser” in the family. Kathy’s husband Walter Keegan (R.A. Vanasse), is a big-time movie director basking in the box office glory of his latest schlock venture, “Truck Stop 3,” and ready to shoot “Truck Stop 4″ after the family reunion. Much to the dismay of Anna, Elliot, and especially Susie, Walter has the audacity to bring his new, gorgeous actress girlfriend, Nell McNally (Emma MacKenzie) to the proceedings, who feels the familial negativity as soon as she steps through the front door. Michael Astor (Gary Swanson ) is the incipient Lothario of the group, the star of a ridiculously successful TV show that Nell calls a “guilty pleasure.” Michael, an old friend of Anna’s, is in town to perform in a production of “The Guardsman,” and Anna has invited him to stay at her home until his hotel room is ready for habitation.
In a play that includes romantic rejection among its many topics, Susie is not happy about this, since she’s had a crush on Michael since she can remember, but Michael has his eye on Nell, and MacKenzie and Swanson convey the uneasy sexual sparks between these two charismatic “beautiful people” with impressive, palpable tension. Michael, in Swanson’s considerably convivial hands, is a romantic magnet for all the ladies in the show, including Anna, who in one of the funniest moments in the play, pulls a plush pillow from under Michael’s head on the couch he’s about to sleep on after he’s rejected her advances.
In a marvelous display of ensemble acting, Allard Vancil is perfectly cast as Anna, a diva who has seen her glory days fade with a tinge of melancholy into the sunset. Her pride and joy for her late daughter has now been transferred to her granddaughter, a role that Lonergan imparts with youthful smarts and fervent feeling.
Erath all but steals the show with his splendidly caustic, misery-laden performance as Elliot, taking corrosively witty shots at just about everyone around him, especially Walter, whom he accuses of abandoning his art and “selling out” to Hollywood. When Walter tells him what he really thinks of his new play, after a reading of it before the family, Elliot literally attacks Walter, knocking him to the floor and choking him. It’s a prelude to Elliot’s revelatory meltdown, in which he drops to his knees and hugs Anna’s legs, begging her for forgiveness for being the black sheep in the family, a scene that Erath conveys with heartrending dam-breaking emotion and Allard Vancil with embarrassed chagrin and a smack of cruelty, telling Elliot he’s “not interesting.” Ouch. Thanks to Erath’s indelibly memorable take on the role, the audience is not likely to agree with her.
But lest one take sides with Elliot against the rest of his family and the others, Margulies is fairly even-handed in judging these people. In a wise, pragmatic turn as Walter, Vanasse offers a persuasive and rivetingly enacted argument for both his career choices and his relationship with Nell. Art doesn’t pay the bills, and though it may be only a year since Kathy’s death, the man is lonely, and he’s found comfort and love with Nell. Eventually, everyone is willing to forgive him for rushing into a new relationship, including Susie, who realizes that Nell isn’t merely a gold digger, but someone that genuinely loves Walter.
Set designer Alan Standrowicz has furnished Anna’s country home with a warm, cozy burnished glow that counterpoints the snarky banter and familial tension surrounding it. Timothy D. Carr’s lighting design is likewise spot on. You’re well-advised to head to the Singh Performance Center in Whitinsville to see Pilgrim Soul Production’s latest gem.