Thursday, November 8, 2018

Death and the Children

Thousand Pines -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through November 17

William Ragsdale, Katie Ailion, Joby Earle, Andrew Veenstra
Kelly McAndrew, Anne Bates. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Get your programs here. You can’t tell the players without a program.
            Those attending a performance of Matthew Greene’s Thousand Pines, which recently premiered at Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of Austin Pendelton, might legitimately engage in a bit of head-scratching and allow to arise such thoughts as “What the hell’s going on up on the stage?” and “Wait a minute, isn’t he her husband and isn’t she…?” Well, as a public service, and to decrease the amount of dandruff left behind in the theater after the head-scratching, I humbly offer this explication of what, I believe, Greene has concocted.
            The Thousand Pines in the title is a junior high school that has experienced a shooting episode somewhat similar to what occurred at Columbine. Children were killed, and three families attempt, six months later during Thanksgiving, to deal with the tragedy in their own ways. What may cause some of the head-scratching is that the family members in all three families are portrayed by the same actors, and even though costume designer Barbara A. Bell has attempted to distinguish the various members in the different families you can’t deny that, well, the family members – or neighbors – are, well, the same people.
            This is an important play dealing with a gripping issue. Because I was one of the head-scratchers on opening night, I went back several nights later to see if I could understand more clearly what the playwright was up to – and I did – mostly. I still have some questions that the staging of the production might answer – and the playwright might consider not being so coy about who is whom and their relationships, but that being said, there is much to admire about Thousand Pines.
            Much of the admiration must be directed towards Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), who plays the mother in each of the three families. In the first family, she creates a woman in total denial of what has occurred, someone who, with a wave of a hand and a mashing of potatoes can make the demons disappear, demons her family, via their son, is responsible for. Yes, this may be a spoiler alert, but it’s a necessary one: the first family we see first is that of the child who was responsible for the shootings.
            In the first family, Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6) is the son who can’t abide his mother’s approach to the tragedy – he will reappear, significantly, in the third scene to offer a resolution of sorts. Then there’s his fiancĂ© played by Katie Ailion (Actor 5) and Joby Earle (Actor 4) who (take notice!) has had a confrontation at a local grocery store – he claims it was with a woman who assaulted him when he attempted to buy the last box of butter – not true!
            There’s a fade-out-fade-in and we’re in another dining room in the same town, but this time it’s the home of one of the victims, and McAndrew, with a costume change and the deft use of eye glasses as a prop, is now a mother seeking justice, with her ex-husband, played by William Ragsdale (Actor 2), a lawyer, handling the case. This mother is all business and out for whatever vengeance she can obtain from the legal system. Her daughter (Ailion) is bitter about the attention her mother gave to the mother’s now deceased stepson and the daughter’s lover (this seems a bit gratuitous plot point, but, whatever…) is a teacher played by Anne Bates (Actor 3) who was at the school and…well…just listen up at the end of this scene to understand what happened. 
            In the final family – again, a family of one of the victims – McAndrew, now dressed in jeans and a man’s work-shirt, and with a distinct change of voice, is a mother who, through sarcasm, is simply trying to deal with the tragedy. Now, Earle is her brother, who comes home with a broken hand (see scene 1), having been arrested by a sheriff’s deputy (Ragsdale). This grieving family will eventually be visited by the brother of the shooter (again, Veenstra) who, over pieces of apple pie, will offer the possibility of closure.
Why my initial problems with understanding what was happening? Well, besides the fact that we have the same actors playing different roles, the set by Walt Spangler doesn’t change – in all three scenes it looks essentially like the same dining room, so one must pay close attention to the necessary exposition that begins each of these scenes to understand the relationships of the characters. There’s also the red herring about the assault described in the first scene – you have to pay close attention to connect what happens (or is described) in scene one with what’s going on in the third scene.
            Should audiences have to work this hard to comprehend what’s happening up on the stage? I don’t know (probably not, unless they’re waiting for Godot). Given the subject matter of the play, I don’t think it should be muted or left open to interpretation. The script might be tweaked a bit, and the production team might consider how to provide audio and visual cues to help the audience members orient themselves as we move from household to household.
            If there’s one clarifying and unifying element in this production it’s McAndrew’s outstanding, multi-faceted performance as the three mothers. The dining room may look the same, but she gives us three very distinct characters, each driven by different needs, desires, fears and coping mechanisms. I was fascinated by what she was accomplishing the first time I saw the play and remained in awe (with a greater understanding) with my second go-around. If you have a budding actor in the family, bring him or her to the Country Playhouse for an engrossing acting tutorial given by McAndrew. They will learn more in 90 minutes than they would in two semesters in acting school
            Thousand Pines runs through November 17. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

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