By Jim McClure
THANKSGIVING-Powerhouse. James McLure provides a delicious feast for which Pacific Theatre Ensemble sets a bountiful table. a large share of the credit for its success must go to director- Mark Herrier –
Produced by Mark Hurty & Scott Belyea for Pacifle Theatre Ensemble. Powerhouse
Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Opened July 26; plays Tours.-Sun., 8; ends Sept. 1.
James McLure provides a delicious Thanksgiving feast for which Pacific Theatre Ensemble has set a bountiful table. While McLure could be compared to other playwrights (Alan Ayckbourn, for one), Thanksgiving displays a marked diversity from his Put. Wars (seen last year at the Zephyr) and adaptation of O’Keefe’s Wild Oats (also presented last year at the Mark Taper Forum). Yet, his plays retain a similar black farce humor which evokes laughter while uprooting deep-seated realizations of what he is saying about human nature.
Thanksgiving delves into a contemporary ‘family’ of friends, replacing the traditional relatives which usually gather around a holiday table. The self-centered ‘me’ generation of affluent career-oriented youngveering-quickly-into-middle -age baby boomers is examined with incisive wit and insightful wisdom. Why do these self -gratifiers of the ‘big chill’ age avoid commitment to others? They show how stress affects their search for the next career move or the next orgasm.
Kate is hosting the dinner at her parents’ home in New Jersey; the furniture is out to the refinishers so the living room is empty except for a portable bar. Kate’s father was a “bag man” for Watergate and she starts to hyperventilate at the mere mention of it. She is madly in love with a Hollywood actor she met three months ago; she calls him Heathcliff and his entrance is staged with a clap of thunder. He is egotistical beyond belief, his cologne is eau de moi and his compulsion is to bed nearly every woman he sees.
Winston and Vanessa are separated and he thinks he’s fallen madly in love with Kate. They arrive at the party separately, the sound of thunder also accompanies her. Winston is overly neurotic, Vanessa overly ambitious. She’s a very successful attorney while he’s a children’s book editor. Even dogs know he’s a failure and nip at his ankles. Rob and Eileen are still married though they probably couldn’t tell anyone why. He sells life insurance and she is a fashion designer who loves to quote what she thinks are Chinese proverbs (she bought a book of them when she was in China): “If the lame duck tries to swim don’t kick it in the creek.”
During the course of the afternoon and late into the evening, their encounters with each other ring true to anyone who’s ever been to a dinner party and are humorous enough to provide laughter on a grand scale. If the script lags here and there and things go on a bit too long. 90 percent of the time it is an absorbing, wellcrafted play (and in these lean times of good theatre, that’s a pretty amazing percentage). And a large share of the credit for the success of this production must go to director Mark Healer who never lapses into overindulgence and keeps his ensemble of actors in balance every moment. There is really not one false note in the entire evening.
And what an ensemble he has gathered! Melinda Deane is bright, soft and utterly endearing as Kate: it’s not difficult to see why everyone loves her. Mark Harelik has a field day as the vainglorious actor James (what actor wouldn’t love to play a role where he gets to say such things as, “In film, you don’t have to do anything … I’m fabulous on film”). Whether playing leads in musicals (Carousel), farce (Wild Oats) or drama (Terra Nova), Harelik has shown time and again he is one of the finest leading actors anywhere on I stage today. In Thanksg[bing, he encompasses the character’s full range.
Randy Oglesby imbues the complex Winston with total conviction. If he can’t have Kate and Vanessa won’t have him, is there any reason to exist? Oglesby shows why Winston is not a loser and has such complete possession of the role it’s difficult to think he would be any different offstage. Nancy Stafford’s physical beauty gives a strikI ing advantage to Vanessa but it is the interior beauty of the actress that makes her a vulnerable human being.
And the textures and shadings Troy Evans and Belita Moreno bring to Rob and Eileen go beyond the obvious to turn these characters into very believable people. Evans shows that Rob. pridefully defending his awful bean sprout casserole, is the very essence of the plain everyday guy. And Eileen’s pain and secrets are subtly evident in Moreno’s interpretation. Again, after observing these two fine actors in other roles their performances here testify to their versatility.
John Arnone’s scenic design of a suburban home is modestly attractive with its first act interior setting cleverly reversing in act two to an exterior backyard with a miniature bridge which is utilized for some inventive staging. Ilya Mindlin contributes yet another of her expert lighting designs and the costumes by J. Allen Highfill directly reflect traits of each character.
While it is fascinating to observe McLure’s people as they unravel their problems, it is also gratifying to know by the play’s end though everything may not be resolved, they have learned how to better cope with their lives. It makes one rejoice when the playwright not only does his homework but leaves his audience with a upbeat feeling.