Review of “The Blue Deep” with Blythe Danner at Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Larry Murray
That The Blue Deep is a family affair, offstage and on, goes without saying. The actors at the Williamstown Theatre Festival have worked together here over the decades, some of them grew up as children spending summers in Williamstown, strutting the WTF stage as adults, the second generations of WTF theatrical families.
In the new play The Blue Deep, the family is also key, the mother greeting the daughter with criticism, as they pick up conversations where they left off months ago – and all the endless bickering that implies. Alternately interesting and annoying to each other, they can be insufferable in real life, yet ever so entertaining on stage when played by actors who add color to their monochrome lives.
The Blue Deep revolves around a daughter, a directionless 26-year old woman named Lila Miller (Heather Lind), and her perpetually in-motion mother, Grace (Blythe Danner). The two share a painful history that, while threatening to drive them permenantly apart, ultimately becomes the only possible path to a reconnection. By staying constantly busy Grace has found a way to avoid the unpleasant reality of her departed husband.
Creating this ongoing drama between mother and daughter, daughter and the gardener, and others is playwright Lucy Boyle, a new voice in the theatre who captures, all too painfully, the inane rattlings of a family that is all style and little substance, privileged, taking in the summer rays in a seaside house in Sag Harbor, New York, not far from the Hamptons.
The Willimstown Theatre Festival’s artistic director Jenny Gersten earns the gratitude of many play-goers for seeking out the women’s voice in theatre, and much of what relative newcomer Lucy Boyle has created in The Blue Deep is highly entertaining, if uneven. There is a long expository section in the middle of act one that this observer found to be a real snorer. Nevertheless, this play received an overwhelming positive reception at its earlier reading at the Festival where the crowd turned out to be so big, it had to be moved to a larger venue.
The production is first class all the way. The cast is led by the brilliant Blythe Danner at home on a perfect summer’s day. She spends it ruling her little bit of paradise and preparing for guests. Much of her dialog was conversational, and I heard some nearby ticket buyers say they had trouble hearing her. That was indeed true at times. Of all the Berkshire theatres, the two Williamstown facilities just gobble up the sound. Having so many screen and television actors do stage work also means that they are often not as proficient at enunciating and projecting their voices for all to hear. In all fairness, it should be noted that Blythe Danner’s volume increased as the first act began its climb to intermission, and in the second act as she was given more dramatic moments, and the volume of her voice rose from the long conversational sections with her daughter into dramatic territory, solving the problem. And hearing devices are available in the lobby for those who admit to deteriorating hearing.
While we take pride in the modern access to all sorts of information, sometimes we just don’t want to know. In some circles – and families – the subjects of mortality, death, dying and the dead are even more embarrassing than salty language or political talk. Artfully skirting around such subjects provides many a playwright with the material for an evening of theatre like this one.
There are three hilarious scenes, too. One in which mother and daughter become glued together with superglue and depend on the gardener to unstick them. In another the older trio decides to indulge in a little weed which brings about predictible personality changes. And a third when the daughter and gardener decide to take a midnight dip in the pool.Director Bob Balaban has a gift for comedy, and these are the happy highlights of The Blue Deep. There’s some strong dramatic moments too -which should not be revealed – they add deep drama to Lucy Boyle’s script.
They argue over Lila’s using plastic grocery bags to carry her clothes on a plane, about a friend who calls to ask about the weather, and about which bedroom gets assigned to whom. If thoughts about other current plays in the Berkshires that deal with the Holocaust, Polar expeditions and sex therapists are a bit too daring, here’s a entertaining evening out that reflects the safe cocoon in which so many people live, shutting out the horrible realities outside in favor of the minor tribulations of daily life. Yes, Virginia, there is a market, a real demand for what I label the “theatre of the familiar and safe.”
With the help of director Bob Balaban, the family discussions finally became elevated when Blythe Danner as Grace, in a harness, rose above the on-stage swimming pool to do some sprightly Pool-ates.
This of course was mocked by her daughter Lila, played by Heather Lind, who was cast in a role as the judgmental, often disapproving child, a mirror reflection of her mom who taught her everything she knows. God. Two insufferable hypocrites in just one play! It is hard to like a play when you don’t like the main characters, and truth be told, everyone else was window dressing. Jack Gilpin as Charlie and Becky Ann Baker as Roberta were weekend drop-in guests, and decorated the set off and on during the play with delightful character acting, but were really cameos, they added little to the dramatic arc of Boyle’s script or the discussion between mother and daughter. Indeed, Jack Gilpin’s Charlie spent much of his time onstage asleep by the pool.
The best thing in the play was Finn Wittrock as Jamie the gardener, whose loud chainsaw often drowned out the continuing squabbling between mother and daughter. He even got to remove his t-shirt for a few hot moments in a pool scene with Lila which threatened to to turn into a love story, but Ms. Boyle wasn’t about to let us get distracted from the dueling mother and daughter.
The set was a gift from heaven, one of near perfection, with clouds and blue sky everywhere, even painted onto the side of the house. At night the stars came out, the big dipper clearly visible over the doorway, with Polaris pointing the way to the entrance.
A fabulously crafted tree was upstage center, and all along the horizon line there were glorious flowers, and a profusion of potted plants that made the setting look festive and welcoming. Grace was smitten with horticulture, and with ornithology, often imagining the call of a skylark.
This may be an inside joke since the skylark is considered a “blithe spirit” rather than a bird, for its song comes from Heaven, and from its full heart. That, when coupled with Grace’s search for the contents of a sentimental cookie jar that got broken alluded to her search for something to hold onto in life.
In the end she finds it, but you will have to take a trip through this new play to see how. The acting, direction, sets and technical aspects are all first rate, and if you enjoy plays about families and family situations, this will prove a wonderful – and except for a little rough language from the daughter – a safe – evening of theatre for you.
The Blue Deep runs from June 27 to July 8, 2012 at the Nikos Theatre of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It runs about two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.