Although I spent eons teaching and writing about American drama, A.R. Gurney was barely on my radar. I wrote about gay theatre and he was decidedly not a gay playwright. His world of upper class WASPS didn't interest me much in my youth. Now, thanks to the Signature's presentation of Gurney's work I am discovering a fascinating, inventive artist. Last season the Signature presented Gurney's THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN, in which one motel room provides the setting for a number of different confrontations. In Gurney's play, these discreet nights at the motel are presented simultaneously. WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER, first produced in 1983, also calls attention to its theatricality. "This play is about me," fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin), announces at the outset. He and his mother (Carolyn McCormick), and older sister (Izzie Steele), occasionally address the audience directly. The narrative is simple. It is 1945 and Charlie's father is still at war in the Pacific. Charlie is going through the throes of adolescence, including rebellion against his family's social world. With no father around, his rebellion is directed against his mother. Charlie finds the perfect playmate in Anna (the magnificent Kristine Nielsen), known in the community as The Pig Woman, an elderly artist-manque who nurtures his rebellious side and his desire to be an artist. Anna also knows all the community's secrets. She has long been a pariah because of her affair with a married doctor, but there are lots of secrets, sexual and otherwise, in this seemingly staid summer community on the shores of Lake Erie. Nothing momentous happens in the play, except that a rambunctious boy starts the painful process of growing up. The play is sweet, touching and often funny.
Jim Simpson's production simplifies this play even more than Gurney intended. The stage is bare except for a simple bench and a couple of low stools. When the play begins, the backdrop is pure white, a tabula rasa, a mirror of the fourteen-year old's impressionable mind. During the play words and images, made out of letters and words, are projected on the drop (great projection design by John Narun). After all, young Charlie, a semi-autobiographical picture of Gurney, becomes an artist with words. A drummer sits on the side of the stage offering accompaniment and sound effects. I was reminded of Thornton Wilder's work in the 1930s.
Noah Galvin is pitch perfect as Charlie. He's bratty, rebellious, horny, sometimes foul-mouthed, often guilty and constantly confused. Galvin is a physical actor and his Charlie does everything but bounce off the walls. He's also immensely likeable. Kristine Nielsen delivers another of her star turns. It's always a joy to be in her company. Carolyn McCormick captures all the mother's moods -- she too has a rebellious streak that she has tried to tame. Everyone else was fine. The play is another testament to the amazing pool of acting talent in New York, the best in the world.
WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER. Signature Theatre. June 5, 2015.