Review: ‘Approaching Zanzibar’ at The Players Club of Swarthmore in Swarthmore, PA

Do you know the way to Zanzibar? I’m not sure that any of the characters in Approaching Zanzibar do – even the one character who claims she’s actually been there. But that hardly matters, in  because while the characters in this offbeat comedy take a long journey, it’s their journey of discovery that matters most. And this play by Tina Howe, while it’s not especially deep or demanding, has a sunny, fanciful tone that makes it worth discovering.

Emi Branes-Huff, Miles Koziol, and Trina Tjersland. Photo by David Richman.
Emi Branes-Huff, Miles Koziol, and Trina Tjersland. Photo by David Richman.

Howe’s 1989 play tells the story of the Blossoms, a restless New York family that undertakes a 2,000 mile road trip to Taos, New Mexico to visit a dying aunt. Dad Wallace (Drake Aaronson) is a composer dealing with writer’s block; mother Charlotte (Trina Tjersland) is going through menopause and treating her hot flashes by dousing herself with champagne; son Turner (Miles Koziol) is a bewildered but brilliant musician; and daughter Pony (Emi Branes-Huff) is an inquisitive and impetuous nine-year-old.

They’re all a little odd, and so are some of the people they meet along the way – including a one-legged doctor, a deaf child who is also a photographer and a psychic, and that aunt, who delights in scaring children and eating orchids. As the Blossoms drive across the country and deal with their own fears about aging and dying, they learn that life can be an exciting trip if you let it – and that the same goes for death.

Approaching Zanzibar goes in several directions at once; it’s mostly a wacky comedy, but it has moments of pathos that hit hard. The symbolism can be a little heavy-handed at times – as when Wallace goes fly fishing with his son and teaches him that fishing, like life, is “all about the fine art of letting go.” But it’s the gentle, sweet comedy that carries the day in the Players Club of Swarthmore’s production, which boasts some fine work from its designers.

The scene that got the strongest audience reaction was one where all four family members, weary and loopy in the midst of their long car trip, launch into impressions of each other. It’s a playful scene that rings true because it shows how a close-knit family bonds, sharing jokes and stories that nobody else will ever get in quite the same way.

Emi Branes-Huff and Miles Koziol. Photo by David Richman.
Emi Branes-Huff and Miles Koziol. Photo by David Richman.

The actors playing the family display a fine sense of camaraderie in this scene, and Branes-Hugg’s Pony is especially endearing. Director George Mulford allows all the cast members a chance to shine, and they all rise to the occasion. But the staging in a few scenes was odd, notably in the car scenes, where the children sitting in the back seat were often blocked by their parents, and a scene where Koziol turns his back to the audience to kiss his bed-ridden aunt (a delightful Doris Chan). The pacing was sluggish at times, with long scene changes that dragged things down. And while the cast did well during the comic scenes, deeper dramatic moments were frequently shaky. A moment when Wallace explodes in frustration at his son seemed oddly subdued; it would have worked better with more rage from the father and more shock from the son.

Tanya Sistare’s scenic design is minimal but effective, using large draped canvas to simulate the family’s tent, plus a group of colorful wooden blocks that are used as chairs and as a stand-in for the family car (Denise Kolodzieg and Erica Wallace provide the props). Lighting Designer Alan Stamford provides a lovely array of stars – complete with shooting stars – for the nighttime scene that closes Act One.

Still, the Players Club of Swarthmore’s production emphasizes the joyful side of Approaching Zanzibar, and for the most part does it quite well. It’s a lighthearted, whimsical gem of a play.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

10487593_1258166110875826_5191555978903029398_n

Approaching Zanzibar plays through January 23, 2015 at The Players Club of Swarthmore – 614 Fairview Avenue, in Swarthmore, PA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.