The play may be the thing; but when that thing is a period piece like “All the Way Home,” it’s the direction that gives it the kiss of life. In his imaginative helming of Tad Mosel’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (based on James Agee’s Pulitzer novel, “A Death in the Family”), Jack Cummings III views this bleak tragedy with the reflective eye of a visual artist. Stripping the action to the bone, he gives color and shape to the play’s moods and distills its substance into stark tableaux of joy and grief that could hang on a museum wall. While daring, this abstract approach to a piece of vintage realism is surprisingly illuminating – and beautiful in the extreme.
In the painterly scheme of this stunning production, the stage is kept dark and bare (in Sandra Goldmark’s austere design), except for two wooden chairs and eight miniature frame houses, unpainted and lighted from within, to suggest the several Tennessee households in which the play unfolds over a few days in the spring of 1915. With no furniture or props to fuss with, characters are defined by their rigid hair styles (by master wigmaker Paul Huntley) and the stiff lines of their costumes (in muted earth tones chosen by Shana Albery and Kathryn Rohe).
The players in this heartbreaking family tragedy move slowly and ritualistically about the bare stage, frozen in their emotions by the sharply defined outlines of R. Lee Kennedy’s rich lighting design. From somewhere offstage, the lonesome wail of a harmonica (played by Corrin Huddleston) cuts right through their private thoughts.
Given the stark quality of the production design, it’s astonishing to find such emotionally layered performances from the Transport Group’s 15-member ensemble.
Eight-year-old Chandler Frantz holds the heart of the play in his tiny hands as Rufus Follet, the six-year-old boy (a stand-in for author Agee) who tries to make sense of the confusing grown-up world around him. Despite all the secrecy and dissembling of his elders, this child doesn’t miss a thing that goes on in the Follet household — although he doesn’t quite know what to make of such family mysteries as his mother’s pregnancy, his father’s moody discontent, his uncle’s alcoholism, his aunt’s concern and his ancient great-great-great grandmother’s sorrow.
The scene in which this aged creature (in a magnificent cameo perf from Irma St. Paule) briefly holds the boy and then silently weeps when he is taken away from her is hardly the defining moment of Mosel’s drama. But in the stunning staging of their encounter, it is the most moving one.
The rest of the cast is no less subtle as they struggle to cope with the appalling tragedy of the death of Rufus’s father, Jay, a man of enormous personal appeal and psychological complexity in Patrick Boll’s superb performance. Monica Russell makes sterling work of his wife, Mary, whose Catholic faith is profoundly shaken by Jay’s death — as are the bedrock beliefs of everyone on both sides of the family.
Without preaching, Mosel presents a heart-wrenching portrait of people in deep crisis, and in its exquisite production (the first New York revival of the play since its 1961 Broadway run), the Transport Group honors every one of them.