Veteran writer Reynolds Price serves up an innocuous slice of Southern life with “Full Moon,” a 1988 script receiving its first major staging at the American Conservatory Theater.
The desultory interest these two hours command is curious, given Price’s honorable track record as poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. His ostensible subject — an interracial love triangle in 1930s North Carolina — ought to strike dramatic sparks. Yet “Full Moon” proves tranquil to a fault, its conflicts barely troubling the still-water surface of the text.
Both 19-year-old Kerney Bascomb (Penny Balfour) and Kipple Patrick (Brett James Kennedy), two years her senior, were raised by loving fathers widowed long ago. The action takes place in an eastern N.C. town during a long gin-soaked night and its aftermath. While the moon is still high after a whites-only dance, Kip begs Kerney to end her “wild” ways and marry him. But she’s skittish, afraid to make a choice that will set her adult path in stone. “I’m waiting for life to start,” she admits to her lawyer papa.
Even her “maybe” comes with a demand: Kip must take permanent leave of his “concubine,” Ora Lee Gaskin (Susan Patterson), the daughter of longtime Patrick household maid Sarah (Gloria Wienstock). He’s already left Ora Lee out in the cold for a month, since Kerney’s rival suitor left town. Ora Lee has additional cause for resentment; Kip may be the father of her young son.
As various romantic duos battle and parents assuage the blows, “Full Moon’s” seven episodes politely decline the opportunity to probe underlying racial and class tensions in any penetrating fashion. The summery mood seems to have lulled Price into a dramaturgical nap. He does suggest intriguingly that interracial liaisons were a tacitly accepted taboo among privileged white men of the era. But Ora Lee’s two scenes with Kip never dig beyond angry or pleading postures, and the larger social fabric emerges sketchily.
Kerney’s desire for an identity beyond ordinary hometown marriage is a competing central theme. Yet it, too, goes largely unexplored. A silly pre-intermission “dream” of the deceased mothers hardly compensates, playing like a parody of an Agnes de Mille ballet.
The energy Price conserves by shortchanging narrative depth is expended somewhat on his language, which sports much colloquial wit. The best sequence is a breakfast tete-a-tete between Kerney and family servant Walter (Nicolas Bearde , whose droll performance is the evening highlight). His razor tongue lays out the town’s race/sex politics in more incisive terms than anything else here.
Benny Sato Ambush’s ACT staging is assured but plumbs no unexpected depths from a shallow text. The cast is full of good actors stymied by simplistic roles. Lack of chemistry between leads Kennedy and Balfour (a bit ordinary as “daring soul” and alleged man-magnet Kerney) doesn’t help. Design work is up to ACT par, though the synth-and-string tenor of Stephen LeGrand’s pastiche sound design tends to underline the show’s lightweight, soap-suds feel.