Review: ‘Hero’s Welcome’ at 1st Stage Theatre

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Hero’s Welcome at 1st Stage is the area premiere of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play. While Ayckbourn might be best known for his uproarious comedies, the humor here is darker than earlier works such as The Norman Conquests or Bedroom Farce. Alex Levy’s excellent direction of the production’s terrific actors offers tantalizing studies of the six main characters and their intertwining relationships.

Angeleaza Anderson and Nick DePinto in "Hero's Welcome" at 1st Stage.
Angeleaza Anderson and Nick DePinto in “Hero’s Welcome” at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Amidst rumors of arson and abandonment, a war hero brings his new bride to the hometown he hasn’t been back to for years. Forced to lead the celebration of his return is his former fiancée, the current town mayor, whom he left at the altar when he departed 17 years ago. His childhood best friend also shows mixed feelings about reuniting, almost immediately resuming the competition that seemed to define their youthful friendship.

Murray, the returning vet (Nick DePinto), is focused on reopening the pub/hotel that his father used to own and doesn’t see the awkward circumstances of the past as an impediment to his goal. He seems to have genuine affection for his young war bride, Baba (Angeleaza Anderson), despite her lack of English.

While disconnected from the underlying backstory, Ayckbourn explores the way the other characters respond to this foreign-born younger woman, and her growing self-agency is among the highlights of the play. The words she struggles to pronounce as she studies her language textbooks often carry thematic, if seemingly coincidental, meaning.

Mayor Alice (Lisa Hodsoll), who has some control over the future of the abandoned hotel, is now married to amiable and downtrodden Derek (James J. Johnson), who is more than a bit of a milquetoast. He is often bullied by Brad (Clayton Pelham, Jr.), Murray’s former best friend, who is especially abusive to his own wife, Kara (Anne Bowles).

James J. Johnson and Clayton Pelham, Jr. in "Hero's Welcome" at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
James J. Johnson and Clayton Pelham, Jr. in “Hero’s Welcome” at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In our current recognition of the #MeToo movement, Pelham’s portrayal is especially haunting. The development of the characters of Kara and Baba are highly compelling, and Bowles and Anderson bring wonderful nuances to their portrayals. Derek reflects that Kara’s gorgeous home and wealthy surroundings might be seen as prison-like, and we watch Bowles absorb that perception.

As always at 1st Stage, the designers create wonderful worlds for the play. Kathryn Kawecki fills the intimate theatre simultaneously with multiple playing spaces: a hotel bedroom, a kitchen, and a sitting room, set in various locations. With the exception of the backdrop of walls of multiple blueprints and design plans, the set leans towards realism and relies on the brilliant work of Robbie Hayes to separate the areas with lighting.

Sound design by Reid May gave the audience clear context for transitions. Both costumes, by Danielle Preston, and props, by Cindy Landrum Jacobs, helped the audience to interpret the characters and their surroundings.

Closed-captioned performances will be offered for select dates.

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Hero’s Welcome runs through October 7, 2018, at 1st Stage Theatre – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call 703-854-1856, or go online.