Directed by Jenn Thompson
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
If one of TACT’s missions is to discover and produce lost plays, their endeavors have reached a significant level of success in their recent production of William Inge’s “Natural Affection” which has not been seen in New York City since its short 1963 run at the Booth Theatre. The significant themes of this remarkable play are precisely the themes of the twenty-first century global community. This is the perfect time for a production of “Natural Affection.”
When the natural predilections between human beings become arrested or distorted, the results can be as mild as a casual insult or as catastrophic as the loss of ego strength and a psychological meltdown. William Inge’s transcendent psychological thriller, currently being resurrected by TACT at the Beckett
Theatre, expresses with explosive wonder what happens when the natural affection between Donnie Barker (Chris Bert) and his mother Sue Barker (Kathryn Erbe) wanders into unnatural territory: Cold War escalates into oedipal meltdown.
When Donnie returns from reform school, all he wants is a deep reconnection with his mother who gave him up for adoption after his father abandoned him and his mother shortly after birth. Or, perhaps, Donnie wants more. Inge’s play is far ahead of its time and carefully dissects the complicated motivations of all of the play’s characters as they attempt to navigate the troubling waters of their psychological malaise. The strength of Inge’s work lies in his ability to create strong characters whose internal conflicts and their conflicts with others and the world are authentic and provocative. Donnie, for example, never had the opportunity to resolve his oedipal feelings for his mother and discovers that such resolution in the present is laden with conflict. His mother no longer wants his affection and her boyfriend is too immature to handle any relationship between Sue and her son.
No one seems happy in “Natural Affection” and with good reason. Chicago’s urban wasteland of “ugly black buildings” fails to nurture Sue’s desires for independence and freedom from sexual stereotypes that limit her prospects for fulfillment and happiness. This setting is a trope for the repressive nature of America’s Cold War weltschmerz and malaise. Kathryn Erbe and Alex Beard (Bernie Slovenk) handily portray a couple mismatched not only in earning ability but also in their understanding natural affection. The important conflict between them could be more carefully explored by these actors so that Bernie’s shattered ego and his abrupt departure and Sue’s subsequent meltdown and rejection of Donnie could be more explosive.
Despite the need to have a different pacing in the two acts, director Jenn Thompson could quicken the pace in the first act. The important conflicts between Bernie Slovenk and Donnie Barker are not developed successfully and, as a result, the plot that is driven by those conflicts is sometimes thin. Actor Chris Bert (Donnie) seems to want and need more from actor Alec Beard (Bernie) but their chemistry – despite being TACT members – seems to be lacking here.
John Pankow’s (Vince Brinkman) monologue in Act II after his character awakens from a drunken stupor is nothing short of brilliant. Vince becomes the spokesperson for William Inge’s mid-twentieth century Cold War angst and outrage. “Life is miserable,” Vince tells Bernie. “Everything is ugly. There is nothing I like at all.” These sentiments perfectly match the angst and outrage of the twenty-first century, particularly reflecting the apprehension of the Millennial Generation and those younger: “We don’t think we’re gonna last. [We] don’t know how to live.” Also compelling (and relevant currently) is his concern that “it is hard for two men to show how they like each other.”
Eve Bianco delivers a chillingly powerful performance as the party guest of the Brinkmans when she wanders into Donnie’s apartment after his mother tells him he cannot stay with her and that he is “a worthless child [she] never wanted in the first place.” Ms. Bianco’s here unnamed character (unnatural affection is often nameless) is attracted to the younger Donnie and does all she can to seduce him. Her mistake is to taunt him with “Come to mama,” especially after Donnie’s mother rejects him and runs after Bernie. Chris Bert’s portrayal of the enraged Donnie is mind-shattering and the audience is aware of how powerfully his character’s homicidal rage has affected him. Victoria Mack’s subtle caress is as powerful in curtain call as is her performance of Clair Brinkman during the play.
Obviously, the issues between Donnie and his mother are archetypes for the deeper lack of natural affection between all persons, between humanity and the environment, and between nation-states. William Inge reminds the audience in graphic and disturbing ways what results when affections that are natural are replaced by affections that are artificial or unnatural. At the play’s end, one realizes the irony in Sue’s pronouncement at the close of the first act: “Everyone’s going to be satisfied.” Everyone is, indeed, satisfied; however, that gratification comes at a very high price. William Inge proffers a haunting warning to present day America and the rest of the global community. This is a powerful play which will have a promising future.