There must be a lot of Lucy Thurber-envy going around Gotham, given the ambitious five-play retrospective of her work being produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and running concurrently in four downtown theaters throughout the month. Collectively, the best thing about these five plays is the detailed and quite devastating portrait they present of the depressed industrial region of western Massachusetts, but “Ashville” — the only world premiere of the bunch, and the second in the plays’ chronology — reps a slack take on themes the playwright tackles better in other works.
For the edification of this popular scribe’s die-hard fans: the cycle begins with “Scarcity,” currently playing on a separate stage at the Cherry Lane in tandem with second-in-line “Ashville,” and continues with “Where We’re Born” (at Rattlestick), “Killers and Other Family” (Axis Company) and “Stay” (New Ohio). The scribe’s achievement in these plays is the portrait of a Massachusetts town that bottomed out when the old factories and mills closed and all the new industry headed south and across the border into Mexico. It takes grit to make it out of such a hopeless environment, and Thurber has great respect for grit.
In “Ashville,” the dispirited mood of the area is visually suggested by the dingy lighting (by Matt Richards) that fails to brighten John McDermott’s dreary set of three adjoining apartments in the same shabby row house. The ugly second-hand furniture is so generic that the tenants might be sharing the same apartment, which is precisely how actor-turned-helmer Karen Allen has staged the piece. The cheap women’s clothing chosen by costumer Jessica Pabst has the same interchangeable look, as if all the daughters in this town are expected to age into their older sisters’ and eventually their mothers’ clothes, in the same way they are expected to take on the burdens of their lives.
From these visual clues alone, it seems pretty obvious that whoever lives in Ashville — the perfect name for this soulless town — should be prepared to stay in Ashville until they rot.
Sixteen-year-old Celia (Mia Vallet) looks as if she’s already headed down that road. Although she’s only a high-school sophomore, she’s got a fully-grown and extremely possessive live-in boyfriend, Jake (Joe Tippett), who’s pushing her to get married. That would be fine with Celia’s needy alcoholic mother, Shelly (Tasha Lawrence), who latches onto Jake as the meal ticket who will support her and the deadbeat losers she picks up at bars and takes home for company. Celia’s only encouragement to think for herself comes from Amanda (a spirited perf from Aubrey Dollar), the older and more sophisticated neighbor who lives next door with Joey (George West Carruth), a sweet but feeble-minded construction worker.
Passive Celia is not one of Thurber’s character success stories, so there’s no real urgency to the play’s pivotal question: Will she or won’t she escape the deadly trap that her mother and her boyfriend are pushing her toward? According to her friendly neighbor Amanda, Celia is supposed to be “smart and funny and a little wild,” like all the other Celia-like heroines in Thurber’s plays who find the courage to make a break for it. But the scribe has neglected to give this coltish girl a working brain, a sense of humor, or even a serviceable vocabulary. And in Vallet’s misdirected performance, she only has two facial expressions — stupid and stupider.
The other characterizations are also on the crude side, although some of these damaged people do get a chance to bare their bellies and make a pitch for sympathy. The “lesson” that Shelly takes from “Of Mice and Men” (“It’s hard to be alone”) explains why her fondest hope for her girl is for “a man to protect her from the world.” And Jake’s response (“I know what it is to be afraid. I know how men are. I know what it’s like not to be protected.”) suggests that he comes by his smothering nature honestly.
Only Joe, the friendly neighborhood dope dealer next door played with goofy good humor by James McMenamin, doesn’t feel compelled to justify his bad behavior. Which is just as well, because these revelations aren’t well integrated into the plot — what there is of it.
Aside from the feeble threat of marriage, there’s no killing suspense about whether Celia can overcome her family loyalties and make a dash for freedom. Unlike other plays in which Thurber explores the same theme, there’s not much at stake here. No school scholarship to fight for. No abuse to escape. Not even much love to be lost.