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Emerging from the Armour Street Theatre after the Davidson Community Players’ production of Ordinary People, I couldn’t help thinking of the poet W.H. Auden’s reaction to the outbreak of WW2: “We must love one another or die.” After watching the hope and despair of the Jarrett family following the death of its most lively member, those two diverging paths for the survivors of the tragic accident were poignantly clear. Remembered as the life of the party and a top swimmer, Buck Jarrett was such a vivid personality to his family and schoolmates that his death – by drowning – ripples powerfully among nearly all the people that his younger brother Conrad encounters every day. When we first see him onstage, Conrad has returned from an extended stay at a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. His dad, Cal, is welcoming and forgiving, presumably more interested in Conrad’s daily doings than he was before the suicide attempt – just a tad irritating with his watchfulness and overprotectiveness. The mess that is Conrad’s mother is more difficult to describe. Beth is all over the place with her various moods, cheery and animated one minute, cold and sullen the next. Neat, organized, and fastidious, she resents what Conrad has done to stain the family’s reputation and spark local gossip, she’s embarrassed by the fact that Conrad and then Cal have sought out the services of a therapist, and she’s in terribly deep denial about how desperately she herself could use some help.
While it’s defensible to spin Judith Guest’s novel, adapted for the stage by Nancy Pahl Gilsenan, as an affirmation of the efficacy of therapy and the value of family and friendship, Ordinary People is not a blithe evening at the theater despite all the Oscar-winning accolades garnered by the 1980 film, including Best Picture. The honesty we encounter in this script makes it all the more surprising that its most recent appearance in Charlotte Metro was in 1994 when it was presented at Children’s Theatre. Twenty-one years ago, that seemed to be an odd pairing, but the current version directed by Debra Baron reaffirms why that 1994 coupling was so right. Any production of Ordinary People must depend heavily on actors who are of high-school age – or who can convincingly seem to be.
Baron takes a courageous path, offering a cast for Conrad and cronies that never seriously push the envelope with the appropriateness of their ages. On the contrary, Baron’s only questionable choice age-wise is Kenny Petroski, who might strike you as too young for Salan, the swim coach. While I can laud Baron’s audacity, I must also observe that her youth corps achieved rather uneven results. Wolfe Edwards was more on Conrad than in him in the early moments of Act I when we see him interacting with his parents and classmates. But the arc of Edwards’ performance – stiff and unnaturally loud at the beginning, progressively more relaxed and natural later on – worked consistently well in his scenes with his therapist, Dr. Berger. Among the youths we encounter at school, newcomers Sam Scheuler as Conrad’s best friend and Leah Wiseman as his new girlfriend were the standouts, and they both drew the most stage time, helping our protagonist to heal. Perhaps it would be unseemly for nearby Davidson College to allow a few of its theatre majors to bolster the cast of a community production, but when we needed to rely entirely on the teens, I occasionally wished they could nurture that kind of relationship.
All of the elders on stage showed themselves quite capable in performance, so I could also imagine them providing an invaluable educational experience for the greener cast members – if only someone besides Edwards had scenes with them. Bill Reilly gave a wimpy yet likable account of Cal’s awkward indecisiveness, making Conrad’s dad an apt candidate for therapy despite his wholesomeness. A similar freshness permeated Elyse Williams’ approach to Beth, so wide in its spectrum of moods that we could even consider Conrad’s mom to be bipolar. Even more refreshing than that was Baron’s re-thinking of Dr. Berger, opting for Frances Dell Bendert to play the role that Judd Hirsch had in the film. Bendert didn’t merely make us see Berger differently because she’s a woman interacting with the Jarrett men. In her circumscribed little corner of the stage, with very few self-revealing lines at her disposal, Bendert gave me a portrait of Berger as a person as well as a professional, with both humanity and frailties of her own.
Ordinary People continues through Sunday, March 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.