The Magnificent Ambersons,” Booth Tarkington’s story of a Midwestern aristocratic family unable to adjust to changing times, has considerable dramatic resonance, all of which Orson Welles exploited in his celebrated 1942 film based on the 1919 novel. Given that Tarkington was a Hoosier and the fictionalized city that swallows the fading Ambersons was based on Indianapolis, James Fesuk-Geisel’s new adaptation is a natural fit for the savvy Rep. But this uneven new script needs a lot more work, and its pedestrian premiere production reduces most of the novel’s swirling themes to a series of theatrical cliches.
A multigenerational familial saga, “Ambersons” is reminiscent of the work of Henry James (although it lacks his intellectual complexity and flourishes of language). The dynasty at the novel’s center finds its economic and ideological domination in an age of monocultural innocence upset by the rise of industrial might specifically the coming of the automobile to their city of Midland.
The play’s central character, George Amberson Minafer (Sean Arbuckle), considers the horseless carriage a passing fad, and his disdain for its industrialist promoter, Eugene Morgan (Tim Grimm), leads to the end of George’s romance with Eugene’s spunky daughter, Lucy (Nicole Marcks), as well as the ultimate demise of the Amberson family. There’s also a strong Oedipal theme thrown into the turn-of-the-century mix: George’s weak-willed widowed mother, Isabel (Kate Levy), refuses to see her son’s character flaws, even as he sabotages her romance with Eugene.
The grandfatherly patriarch, Major Anderson (Frank Raiter), George’s Aunt Fanny (Priscilla Lindsay) and Isabel’s brother, George (Paul Mullins), make up the rest of the Amberson clan, whose stately mansion is metaphorically run over by a motor car.
The script struggles to capture such a complex novel in a two-hour drama using only seven characters the need to simplify means that we never see George Amberson Minafer’s father, nor any of the other inhabitants of Midland who might lend context to the Ambersons’ plight. The play also confines great chunks of the novel to narration, which makes the show static and boring.
The conclusion is particularly unsatisfying. The character of Lucy drops out of the story and George is left wandering about the stage (in the novel, he, too is poetically run over by a car). Fesuk-Geisel would be well advised to expand his dramatic palette a little: In these austere times, actors can play more than one role.
Although the compelling Arbuckle finds some resonant moments as the tragic central character, director Scott Wentworth never satisfyingly handles the links between the narration and the short dramatic scenes. It’s unclear whether the characters are telling their own stories or if the actors are playing narrators.
Too many scenes begin with people wandering slowly into the playing space and manipulating chairs. In this post-Frank Galati age, that’s an imaginatively bankrupt approach. There are some competent performances, but also moments when actors appear to grasp for lines. William Bloodgood’s set is neutral and attractive, but its playing spaces are not used consistently by the director.
An unwieldy Midwestern epic, “The Magnificent Ambersons” needs a clear theatrical idea to adequately make the transition to the stage. Welles had the appropriate firm hand; this newer effort still needs to find its grasp on the text.