'Close Ties'

The characters in Elizabeth Diggs' latest domestic drama, "Close Ties," present a convincing group portrait of a family in crisis.

The characters in Elizabeth Diggs’ latest domestic drama, “Close Ties,” present a convincing group portrait of a family in crisis. The problem that consumes them — namely, what to do about dotty Grandma — is genuinely wrenching. And in Pamela Berlin’s forthright ensemble production, every member of this troubled family gets a fair and sympathetic hearing. Yet for all their authenticity, these are not very likable people. And while the lack of kindness and generosity they show one another makes them refreshingly unsentimental, they are not monstrous enough to be more than mildly interesting.

One look at Michael Schweikardt’s comfortably dated kitchen setting (circa 1982) for the Frye summer home in the Berkshires and you know real people live here. And thanks to Diggs’ skill at naturalistic kitchen-talk, the members of this big clan sound very convincing as they go through the old rituals of acting out their longstanding family dynamics.

Watson Frye, an excessively mild-mannered lawyer played with all due emotional detachment by Jack Davidson, may be the nominal head of this household, but everyone looks right through him. His wife, Bess, a perfect saint in Carole Monferdini’s big-hearted perf, bustles through her chores in a state of perpetual anxiety, a servant to her heedless children and a slave to her tyrannical mother.

Pretty Anna (Polly Lee) seems even-tempered, but being a bit of a flirt, she knows how to instigate trouble. Nursing student Connie (Julie Fitzpatrick) and gawky high school kid Thayer (David Gelles Hurwitz) are the quiet, watchful ones in this family — the only ones smart enough to run and hide in their books when voices are raised.

So far, so bland. Then, in the nick of time, middle daughter Evelyn (Fiona Gallagher) arrives from Harvard grad school, trailed by her unwanted but persistent boyfriend, Ira (Tommy Schrider). Evelyn is the one with the unresolved “issues.” A bundle of neurotic energy and contradictory impulses, she is likely to strike out at any one at any time. And while Gallagher captures both her fierce intelligence and her well-guarded vulnerability, the strength of the performance can’t solve the problem of her essential childishness.

At least we know where Evelyn’s selfishness comes from. Meet Grandma Josephine, the beloved heart of the household — and the kind of emotional tyrant who isn’t satisfied unless she has every member of the family ground down under her foot.

Judith Roberts, who is tall and stately and has cultivated a glance so piercing it could turn you to stone, plays this 84-year-old matriarch with guarded respect. The crabby whims, the will of iron, the imperious demands, the impatience with anyone’s ideas but her own are all viewed with sympathy, as the last angry shout of a strong woman watching her mind collapsing.

But Josephine is a petty tyrant, not a royal monster in the family traditions of Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee — or even Tracy Letts. And while her mental deterioration is sad to watch, her decline and fall do not bring down a kingdom, only a household of petty people.

For all the carrying on about Grandma, the only ones who show true compassion for her — by listening to her — are the two youngest children. The nominal grownups do little more than watch with increasing alarm. Not that they behave any better to one another. Despite their closeness, no one touches, smiles at, speaks gently to, looks lovingly at or otherwise shows any genuine affection for anyone else.

Real families may very well behave this way, but they are deadly company on the stage.

A correction was made to this review on Oct. 1, 2008.

Close Ties

Ensemble Studio Theater; 99 seats; $30 top

Production

An Ensemble Studio Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Elizabeth Diggs. Directed by Pamela Berlin.

Creative

Set, Michael Schweikardt; costumes, Suzanne Chesney; lighting, Chris Dallos; sound, David M. Lawson; props, Mary Houston; production stage manager, Mary E. Leach. Opened Sept. 25, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Josephine Whitaker - Judith Roberts Bess Whitaker Frye - Carole Monferdini Watson Frye - Jack Davidson Anna - Polly Lee Evelyn - Fiona Gallagher Connie - Julie Fitzpatrick Thayer - David Gelles Hurwitz Ira Bienstock - Tommy Schrider
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