Anna Patterson's summer house in the Berkshires looks like the ideal place to spend a happy family vacation. There's a deck out back beyond which stretches a verdant broadleaf forest. Inside, overstuffed gingham armchairs beckon, the vases are regularly filled with fresh flowers, and the living room bears all the signs of a well-heeled and comfortable clan: steamer trunks and wooden canoe paddles, baskets and masks brought back from exotic adventures, framed family photographs and shelves of board games. Evidence is everywhere of a life well-lived -- and yet this country house also serves as the container for grief, loneliness and existential angst.
Written more than 100 years after Anton Chekhov published "Uncle Vanya," Donald Margulies' 2014 play "The Country House" revisits classic Chekhovian themes: family rivalries, desire and rejection, painful self-analysis and the fear that life has been wasted.
A family of actors gathers at its summer house in the Berkshires, where the memory of Kathy, lost one year earlier to cancer, is still fresh. Nevertheless, her widower Walter has brought along his beautiful young fiancee, Nell, a choice that doesn't sit so well with his college-aged daughter, Susie, nor with her uncle, Elliot. Their host is Elliot's mother and Susie's grandmother, Anna, a grand dame of the stage whose every entrance and exit drips with theatricality; Anna has also invited her celebrity actor friend, Michael Astor, to spend a few nights.
As directed by TheatreWorks' Robert Kelley, this solid cast of six keeps the humor at a lively bubble above the simmering depths of resentment and jealousy. Kimberly King plays the queenly Anna, who drapes her aged-starlet body in gauzy pastel silks and glides through rooms making pronouncements it's understood will go unchallenged. So unshakably in control is King's Anna that even when she claims she has to avert her eyes from images of her deceased daughter, the protest feels more melodramatic than genuine.
Meanwhile, her living son, Elliot (Stephen Muterspaugh), starts out as the funny guy with a self-deprecating bite, but drinks and broods until he's spewing a special blend of caustically comical self-hatred. Fueled by his sister's death and steeped in thespian impulses, Elliot is Margulies' Vanya, a depressive giving voice to the emptiness we all feel but elect not to discuss in polite company, especially before dinner.
"How did I become this ... sad excuse for a man," he demands of his mother at the crux of his agony. "I wasted so much time! On what? Auditions! Rehearsals for living, not living." One can almost hear Chekhov's antihero muttering in the wings: "When you have no real life then you live with mirages. At least it's better than nothing."
The non-bloods in this family gathering include successful film director Walter (Gary S. Martinez), lithe and limber B-actress Nell (Marcia Pizzo) and hunky movie star Michael (Jason Kuykendall), each of whom alternates between skirting the cesspool of Elliot's anger and diving in to wrestle with him.
"You've always been slightly unhinged, but in a benign sort of way," a shaky Walter concludes after a confrontation between them escalates to physical violence. It's only golden boy Michael who seems nearly impervious to Elliot's vitriol. He alone escapes the holiday unscathed: slightly more confused than when he arrived, but no less charmed.
At the center of this swirling family fiasco is Yale coed Susie, the only representative of her generation and the only one with the power to heal the wound of her mother's death. Her comings and goings are accompanied by the songs of Joni Mitchell, an artist emblematic of gutsy emotional honesty. Like the singer whose lyrics surge through her earbuds, Susie looks unflinchingly at both sides, loves her histrionic family members for who they are and calmly declines to follow them into a profession her own father calls "an odd pursuit, when you stop to think about it: Grown people shouting in rooms missing a fourth wall."
In the end, it's not Anna but Susie, the motherless daughter, who has the power to break through Uncle Elliot's anguish. The play's final scene sees Susie, Elliot and Anna huddled together around a family photo album, finally confronting their loss together and giggling over a memory of "the saddest, flattest, home-baked birthday cake" and how they "devoured it, till there was nothing left on the plate but crumbs." After all the witty quips about Hollywood sellouts and small-town theater companies, it's no easy task to transition into an utterly sincere redemption scene full of laughter and quiet weeping, and in this production, the play's closing moments are also some of its weakest.
Yet despite its sentimentality, the final scene comes as a relief, pointing as it does to the truths that lie beneath the mirages projected by this family, and the love that remains even when everything seems lost.
Andrea Bechert's stunning set houses the drama beautifully, but it's the actors who carry this compelling production all the way through to its bittersweet end.
What: "The Country House," presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Sept. 20. See website for full schedule.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.