Our lives are like a photograph; a picture that captures a moment, showing everything and nothing simultaneously. Even so, the deep complexities of relationships we share with others keep us frozen to our spot, keep us from going, because like Ben Gant says, how are you ever going to step out of a photograph? Compass Rose Theater starts off the 2014 new year with their production of Look Homeward, Angel, a play that explores those intricate relationships that keep us stuck in our own personal photographs. Directed by Patrick Walsh, this stirring drama is a reflection of a life truly struggled inside the emotional abuses of a controlling family.
Costume Designer Linda Swann eases the audience’s journey back to 1915 with her simplistic but accurate approach to the costumes. Dresses that fit the style of the era without overwhelming the audience with effervescent colors are suited for the ladies and the gentleman’s outfits find a balance between dapper and shabby, particularly the clothing used for Eugene. Swann fits the garments to the performers in a way that allows them to traverse the intimate space with ease while still appearing to suit the southern charm and style of the 1910’s in South Carolina.
It’s Lighting Designer Cecilia Durbin who creates a visually stunning opening and closing moment with the harsh white light capturing Eugene Gant like a flashbulb of a camera; forever memorializing him as he was in that inescapable photograph. Durbin’s subdued amber light for the family at the end of the production is another brilliant moment; shrouding the family in a background shadow as Eugene steps forward into the light, separating himself from the family that has held him back for so long.
Director Patrick Walsh has a perceptive understanding of how to create a world inside a very intimate space, but there are moments when his blocking comes into question— mainly for entrances and exits. During scenes spent in the marble shop people enter from the top balcony and descend the stairs but they always exit from the front of the stage out through the house, or off to the side, creating a slight confusion as to what is considered the exterior of the shop, and what is considered perhaps a back entrance or upstairs to the shop, as the father character hides up behind a curtain on the balcony in the same place where people enter his shop. This happens periodically in the boarding house as well in trying to create a sense of what rooms are where and which exits lead outside verses leading to another portion of the house.
Walsh does however succeed in developing the relationships between the characters in a fashion that truly allows the audience to see the turmoil boiling below the surface of their conversations. Working along with Line Coach Hannah Geib, the pair create an authentic southern sound in the voices of their actors, constructing a world of southern civility, which makes the emotional outbursts that much more shocking when they occur.
There are far fewer women in the production than there are men, but the women who are present make their presence known in one way or another. Appearing only briefly in the second act is Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford). With her sultry air preceding her unctuous tongue it is clear she lives up to her title as Madame. Harford gives an exceptional cameo performance, igniting a scene of true passion between her and W.O. Gant; stirring up a major point of raw emotional contention in the story.
‘Fatty’ Pert (Janise Whelan) is a woman in the complete opposite fashion when it comes to her character’s behavior. Whelan, while certainly not the model image of chastity and purity, allows her corrupted character to be far more gentle and giddy. A married older woman attending the fancy of a younger man is certainly nothing to cheer for, however Whelan’s performance appeals to the audience’s sympathies with her teasing and cloyingly sweet flirtations with Ben (Bret Jaspers). While having one of the most climactic scenes in the production (which cannot be mentioned for fear of spoiling the plot twists) Jaspers grounds himself in a tragic reality, jabbing verbal and emotional daggers at his mother. Together Jaspers and Whelan offset the saccharine nature of the younger romantically inclined couple in the production, balancing youthful fantasy with wizened reality.
Rounding out the main women in the production is the new tenant to the boarding house Miss Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons.) A delicate flower that wafts in on an afternoon breeze, Clemmons is the epitome of a glass of cool sweet southern-stirred lemonade; polite, charming, possessing a fragile innocence. Her involvement with Eugene (Shane O’Loughlin) is a driving point of the story.
Together O’Loughlin and Clemmons have a budding chemistry that grows as the production carries on, both opening up to the other in a way that draws the audience into their story. O’Loughlin is a mild presence on the stage but when he speaks you truly hear him. There is something fascinating about the way he presents his story. His quiet approach makes his final eruption such a dynamic shock that you are left gaping in awe when he finally gives his mother, Eliza Gant (Lucinda Merry-Browne) a piece of his mind.
Merry-Browne portrays the matriarch of the Gant household, a character that can only be described as a piece of work. A true mother that thinks she knows best for her family and her children, her overzealous attempt to do right by her children turns her into a raving monster that traps her family under her iron clutches. Merry-Browne finds the perfect balance between emotionally harried and blazing fury in her character, letting both erupt forth in a passionate rush of vocal crescendos. Her fights with W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) are intense driven from a molten pit inside her character’s well-meaning heart.
Goodson holds his own against the catastrophic outbursts that Merry-Browne brings to the stage, his initial appearance so thoroughly boisterous and disturbing that you find yourself cheering him on as the underdog in the situation. Goodson has instances of pure upheaval in his heart, blaring out through his booming voice in moments of intoxication and in moments of fear that disguise themselves as pride or anger. A commanding performance that easily rivals Merry-Browne’s intense stage presence, Goodson is the epitome of the tortured father character in the oppressed Gant household.
There is much to be said for this emotionally gripping production of Look Homeward, Angel. It’s a fine example of the great American play at work, being reminiscent of Williams and O’Neill all blended into one. And yet it is still relatable to modern audiences – a family struggling with their own issues just trying to get by, doing what is best for everyone in the eyes of a mother.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.