With “Three Hotels” still running at its Sheridan Square home base, Circle Repertory Co. launches its 25th season a few blocks west at the Lucille Lortel Theater with “The Fiery Furnace,” Timothy Mason’s family excursion to the Midwest during the years of transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy. The larger venue only highlights the problems of this unformed, unfinished play and how skimpily Mason serves his star, Julie Harris.
The play opens in 1950 as Eunice (Harris) descends a stairway, suitcase in hand, determined to accompany her elder daughter, Faith (Ashley Gardner), on the trip from Chippewa Falls, Wis., to the University of Chicago. The plan, not unexpectedly, doesn’t sit well with smart, independent Faith; when her bubble-brained sister Charity (Susan Batten) and redneck brother-in-law Jerry (William Fichtner) report the news to their father, who’s waiting impatiently in the car, he’s not exactly pleased either.
Eventually Eunice yields, but her desire to escape — dreary home, threatening marriage, shriveling family roots — runs through the play and is eventually shared with both daughters. “He was never unfaithful and he was never true,” Eunice says of her unseen husband, a sentiment that neatly captures the emptiness of her emotional life. Yet after that opening scene, Eunice becomes peripheral; Mason’s focus shifts to Faith and Charity and the problems faced none too subtly by a family in which, believe it or not, Hope really did die young.
The first act’s three scenes establish that Jerry is a loser who claims fallen arches as a disability to keep from serving in Korea, earning him the loathing of his McCarthy-loving father-in-law, and that Charity will stand by her man despite his obvious flaws. Faith brings home her fiance, Louis (Zach Grenier) — a balding, Jewish socialist — and confides that she doesn’t love him but shares his outlook on life, both of which notions her mother finds upsetting.
In Act 2, as the father lies dying upstairs, Charity and her kids are being rescued by Faith and Louis from a husband now revealed as a mean drunk and vicious abuser. Mason’s characters are types who don’t change much throughout the play’s 13-year span; he doesn’t give any of the actors much to work with.
That thinness has severely hampered director Norman Rene, who generally has a brilliant touch with such intimate material; the evening feels pinched and constrained. Until the final moments, the action unfolds in slow motion, the actors tangling with Midwestern English as though it were a foreign language. It didn’t help that at a critics’ preview, Harris was uncertain of her lines. On the other hand, Grenier and Gardner brought considerable warmth to their roles.
The production, competent but uninspired, includes a realistic kitchen setting by Loy Arcenas, comfortable-looking clothes by Walker Hicklin and serene lighting by Debra J. Kletter.