Off Broadway Review: ‘Ashville’

Ashville review Off Broadway

The world premiere title in Lucy Thurber's five-play cycle isn't the strongest example of the scribe's work

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.

Off Broadway Review: 'Ashville'

Cherry Lane Theater; 179 seats; $55 top.  Opened Sept. 5, 2013.  Reviewed Aug. 27.  Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production

A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation, by special arrangement with the Cherry Lane Theater, of a play in one act by Lucy Thurber.

Creative

Directed by Karen Allen.  Sets, John McDermott; costumes, Jessica Pabst; lighting, Matt Richards; sound, Bart Fasbender; props, Matthew Frew; production stage manager, Eugenia Furneaux.

Cast

George West Carruth, Aubrey Dollar, Andrew Garman, Tasha Lawrence, James McMenamin, Joe Tippett, Mia Vallet.

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  1. sky koltun says:

    An alternate view.

    As a dramaturge, I simply couldn’t disagree with this grossly oversimplified review of the work of Lucy Thurber’s play “Ashville.”

    It is not only the review or this play I disagree with, but the overall summarization as interpreted by Ms. Stasio. The play’s pivotal questions is not, as Ms. Stasio suggests, “Will she or won’t she escape,” but rather: Will she survive? I believe the heart of this play is how do any of us survive adolescence? I cannot think of a more interesting or profound theatrical question than how does one survive in such untenable circumstances as this central character is put in. I cannot think of anything more interesting to watch one person’s struggle to survive in such an intolerable environment that is absolute and would impossible for most people.

    In her critique the character Joey (George West Carruth), is described as “a sweet but feeble-minded construction worker.” In fact the character of Joey (as all of Ms. Thurber’s characters) is far from feeble-minded. The larger scope the characters in this play is that they all offer an intense and incredibly specific view of their own world. Even if Joey doesn’t display an overtly intellectual character he has a profound emotional intelligence that is expressed subtly and quite poetically in his interactions with Celia.

    This example describes what I think is the most profound and radical aspect of Ms. Truber’s writing. The history of American theater is one in which only the audience is privy to the irony and pathos of the situation the characters are playing out – from “Our Town” to “Whose afraid of Virginia Wolf?” We, as the audience, sit back in comfortable superiority and we watch and judge the dynamics play out for these characters who are never privy to the larger context that their situations are revealing. To my way of thinking this is a far over-used tool in the American Theatrical cannon. What is so extraordinary and exciting about Thurber’s work is that her character’s, each holding a piece of the puzzle, are keenly aware of who they are in the larger scheme of their lives. They have a strong sense of the present moment, of their situation, and even of their context. I have never seen a realistic American play in which the character’s are bestowed with so much knowledge and poetry. Perhaps it is unnerving for the viewer to experience a work of such magnitude which touches the emotional depths in such a direct and immediate way. I know I was unnerved by the pain and raw emotion of the character’s lives. This is why I go to the theater! If I want to feel comfortable and be told that all the of my preconceived notions of the world are correct I’ll just stay home and listen to NPR. Kafka said, that “A book must be an axe to the frozen sea within us”, and honestly is this not the function of all art?

    The performances given by this small troupe of actors could not have been more riveting or more on point. Each one of them are masters of their craft. Mia Vallet (Celia) stole a scene simply by sitting in near darkness down stage and experiencing wordlessly a prior moment on stage. The performances of all the actors struck the oh so rare balance of cinematic intimacy while being perfectly articulated for the stage. This merits an incredibly strong nod toward the seamless direction of Ms. Karen Allen whose staging of this production, which would be very complex for any director, made it look effortless.

    The gross description given by Ms. Stasio of Mia Vallet’s performance, ” She only has two facial expressions — stupid and stupider.” Well, it simply makes me wonder if she’s given the same critique to Marlon Brando or James Dean… Perhaps Ms. Stasio is unable to read facial queues? I hear that this is an actual ailment that afflicts people.

    I would not say that I am a “die hard” fan of Thurber’s work as this is the first I have seen of it. One thing I can say is that, like many artists in the theatrical tradition unfortunately Ms. Thurber’s body of work may not fully be appreciated in her own time.

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