7:30 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Also 4 p.m. March 6. Through March 14. $23-$33. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260. www.get.org.
By Wendell Brock
A.R. Gurney’s “What I Did Last Summer” feels like a lost moment from the prep-school-educated, quintessential WASP playwright’s youth. In this coming-of-age tale, 14-year-old Charlie lives with his mother and sister while his father is overseas during World War II. Not mature enough to be the man of the house, Charlie falls under the spell of an older, Pocahontas-like bohemian who teaches him about art, wine and all the stuff that a teenager would find grand and worldly.
There’s something murky and slightly mysterious rippling across the surface of this Mark Twain-meets-John Cheever study of American life set on the banks of Lake Erie.
Though the Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s nicely executed production keeps us guessing until the end, Gurney’s themes and motives never come into focus in what amounts to a minor work about a mother’s vexed and fumbled attempts to connect with her adolescent son.
On his Web site, the distinguished and prolific playwright (“The Dining Room,” “Sylvia”) says the poorly received 1982 play, which contains four nicely detailed parts for young actors, “has survived to find a healthy life in high schools.”
So why pluck it from obscurity?
In her program notes, director Tess Malis Kincaid expresses an abiding connection with the material: her father was a World War II veteran, her mother an artist.
You have to respect that and to admire Kincaid’s directorial debut. A founding member of the theater, she knows that the auditorium’s weakness is its monumentality. So she and set designer Jamie Bullins place the action on what looks like a skateboarder’s paradise, a series of angular platforms that give lift to the flat-as-a-pancake stage and ramp up the kinetics of the highly physical performances.
Always likable and boyish, Chris Moses may be a little too nice for the alternately bottled-up and sharp-tongued Charlie, who by today’s standards doesn’t seem all that troubled. Moses’ performance has a quirky muscularity, but you don’t get a sense of what’s simmering underneath Charlie’s erratic veneer. Rebecca King does a fine job of capturing the agitation of Charlie’s sister, Elsie.
With her mother and brother gobbling up all the air in the room, Elsie is all but invisible. As Bonny, potential love interest of both Charlie and his self-conscious Canadian friend Ted (Eric Mendenhall), Brittany K. Loffert sparkles like sunshine.
As Grace, the mother of this dysfunctional duo, Mary Lynn Owen is good at falling to pieces and putting herself back together.
Grace pays a visit to the mysterious Anna (Megan McFarland), who apparently has a history of seducing the clan. In what should be the juiciest part of the play, McFarland’s Anna is a bit wispy.
Anna’s clothes seem more ’80s than ’40s (thanks to designer Jim Alford), and her long and voluptuous hair threatens to become a character. Why Charlie is so bewitched by this purposely cool and enigmatic woman, nicknamed “The Pig Lady,” is hard to fathom.
“What I Did Last Summer” is like that: gleaming but not very deep, or funny.
Kincaid is one of the city’s best actresses, and she clearly has directing chops, too.
Next time, let’s just hope she gets a little more to pounce on.