Review: Ancestral Voices

Ancestral Voices

review by Marguerite Krause

A production of Ancestral Voices by A. R. Gurney ran at The Falcon Theater in Burbank, California, from October 14 through November 26, 2000. The narrator and central character of the story is Eddie (portrayed by Fred Savage), who tells us about the upheaval in his family, and the moral outrage of their mid-twentieth-century town, when his grandmother leaves his grandfather for another man.

Eddie’s mother, Jane (played by Mariette Hartley), and father, Harvey (played by Robert Foxworth) try with varying success not to take sides, and to keep their children connected to both of their grandparents. Jane, however, never truly understands how her mother Madeline, Eddie’s “Gram” (played by Katherine Helmond), could have done something so thoughtless and foolish. Jane adores and tends to side with her father Ed, Eddie’s “Gramps” (played by René), and so does Eddie.

As the story progresses, we see, through Eddie’s eyes, the strengths and weaknesses of all of the adults in his life, and also catch glimpses of the time and place in which they live. The family is “upperclass” and well-to-do, living and working in Buffalo, New York, except when they’re visiting Gram’s “weekend home” in the country. The tale begins a few years before World War II and continues into the war years, as Eddie matures from a boy nine or ten years old into a teenager, and ends with Eddie married and a father himself.

Ancestral Voices is designed to be “readers’ theatre.” The stage was bare, except for chairs and black music stands, which held the actors’ scripts, arranged in a straight row facing the audience. The “costumes” consisted of appropriate street clothes for each character — simple but elegant dresses for the women, suits for the men (dapper for Gramps, businesslike for Harvey), and somewhat “preppie” shirt and slacks for Eddie. As the central character, Eddie sat center stage, on a white, wooden bar stool. The other actors sat in chairs true to the period of the play, most upholstered (Harvey’s looked like leather) with carved wooden arms and feet. To Eddie’s right sat his mother, and then Gramps; to his left was his father, then Gram.

In one scene during the play, Ms. Helmond played an additional character, “Aunt Fanny,” who briefly befriends Gramps after the divorce. René also played an extra character in two scenes, “Uncle Roger,” the man who steals Gram’s affections and who, it turns out, had been Gramps’s best friend for most of their lives.

The play, and this particular production, were excellent – and all five cast members were superb! For a piece that is “only” five actors sitting and reading from scripts, I was fascinated by the importance and impact of the subtle… well, “blocking” or “choreography” aren’t exactly the right words. “Presentation,” perhaps? The show isn’t a staged play…but it isn’t “just” dramatic reading, either.

I was fortunate to see the play twice: a Saturday evening performance and the next day’s Sunday matinee. Because of this, my reactions have two layers… the first time through, I got involved with the characters and soaked up the story and generally absorbed the experience. The second time, I had the luxury of noticing not only what I was feeling, but how I was led to feel that way.

For instance, I loved watching Eddie grow up during the course of the story — how he struggled to comprehend what was happening with Gramps and Gram, and how his relationship with them, and both his parents, changed over the years. All of the family interactions, between all of the various pairs of characters, were wonderfully true to life. The script is full of humor, and the cast plays it beautifully, from Eddie’s innocent eavesdropping and commentary on the adult world around him to his parents’ understandably annoyed, and often bitingly funny, reactions.

On second viewing, I enjoyed noticing the way Fred Savage aged Eddie over the course of the play. Voice and expression and body language were crucial, of course, but so was the way Eddie seemed to be looking UP at the adults whenever he was listening to a conversation … and as he grew older, the angle at which he looked up got lower and lower, a subtle hint that Eddie was getting taller and taller, as well as more and more on an equal emotional and intellectual footing with the adults.

Although Ancestral Voices is full of laughter, I wouldn’t call it a comedy. Beneath the wit and humor are layers of heartfelt warmth and, below that, poignant tragedy. Eddie’s grandfather is loved by his daughter and grandchildren, admired and respected by his friends and colleagues throughout the town — none of which lessens his grief at being betrayed and abandoned by his wife. Similarly, Eddie’s grandmother thinks she is pursuing “true love” when she runs off with Roger, although they don’t actually run very far — they end up living at the home in the country that Gramps had originally built for her, and have to cope with being ostracized by Buffalo “society” and with the realities of daily life once they marry and the romance begins to fade.

In this production, I enjoyed the way the story was told “to” the audience… not only by Eddie, in his role as narrator, but in the way each character, whoever he or she was addressing, mostly faced forward and focused toward the audience, rather than directing his/her words sideways, to the other cast members. This technique was very involving for the audience… it made us feel as if we were the other partner in the conversation. When Gram comes out of her house and directs her “Hello, dearies!” to us when the family comes to visit, or Gramps leans forward, looking us in the eye, as he says to Eddie, “I’ll show you how to catch trout, would you like that?” the emotional warmth flows right across the edge of the stage to grab us, as if WE were the beloved grandchildren being addressed.

In fact, we get quite comfortable with the characters speaking to us, rather than directly to each other. But then, at the climax of the play, Gram and Gramps meet for the first time since the story began… and, just this once, René and Ms. Helmond make eye contact. It’s a gentle, subtle moment — and also intensely powerful — as the two characters whose lost relationship has driven the action and shaped the lives of all the other characters finally engage with one another across the stage.

All the little details in the production, whether they came from individual actor’s choices, director’s “staging,” or suggestions in the script, interwove seamlessly. Despite the lack of set or curtains or elaborate lighting, I never felt any confusion about where one “scene” ended and another began, or about which characters were involved from one moment to the next. Subtleties, again… When characters were not involved in a scene, the actors simply remained in their chairs, sitting quietly. When it was time for them to re-enter the story, the actor would make a tiny move that brought him/her from the stillness of being “not there” to suddenly being in character and “present” and alive. Some of the cast members, including René when he was Gramps, used their eyeglasses as a prop for that transition, putting them on just before they started reading and taking them off each time they finished. And even though René played Roger as not wearing glasses, there was never any doubt about when that character “came on stage” to join a scene.

Speaking of René, it was such fun to watch him play two sharply opposed characters in one play — he was both the home wrecker and the home wreckee! Gramps was warm and wonderful and tragic, and Roger was such a jerk! Although Roger had only two scenes, René managed to give the character an arc. In the first scene, when Gram introduces him to Jane and the family, Roger is stiff and ill-at-ease — which rang true, given the situation. René’s portrayal tempted the audience to think that maybe he had redeeming features… some real feelings for Madeline or Ed, maybe, or some kind of personal honor. But then, in his second scene, a family dinner party at which he is rude to the family and dismissive of Madeline and her feelings, Roger proves that he’s just plain despicable.

I can’t quote every memorable moment, or I’d have to quote the whole play. Actors are sorcerers, and this play makes full use of their theatrical magic. For instance, the words of the script never described exactly when or how seriously Gramps is drunk from one scene to the next… but René showed us, somehow, just sitting in a chair, Ed’s deterioration, just as Ms. Helmond showed us Gram “standing up” to give her speech at the dinner party, though she didn’t actually get to her feet… Another wonderful scene consists of Gramps and Eddie going to the family “fishing camp,” out in the woods, for a few days of peaceful male bonding. Through the dialogue and, more importantly, the ways in which René and Mr. Savage give their characters life, we’re shown Eddie’s love for his grandfather, and Ed’s abiding love for the wilderness and the simple joys to be found there. At the end of the scene we don’t just “know” these things as dry facts about the characters — we experience them on a deeper level, as if the feelings are our own.

Theatre is all about the power of imagination. At its best, it can convince us we’re seeing anything from a family dinner party to a starlit mountain lake…. and both sides in a messy divorce. Ancestral Voices and its masterful cast used that power to perfection.