Signature Theater’s “What I Did Last Summer” Explores the Coming-of-Age Story

By Karen Isaacs

A. R. Gurney is a favorite playwright of mine. His plays are often seen as being only about a particular social/economic class — the upper middle class/well-to-do white Anglo-Saxon protestants (WASPs) where civility, convention and ritual is all important.

But in Gurney’s plays much is running beneath the surface — a questioning of those conventions and rituals,  a breaking of the civility and a challenging of authority.  In addition, he mines the psychology of those who have grown up in these environments and the prices they have had to pay.

What I Did Last Summer got its initial presentation in 1982 on Cape Cod and later that summer at Westport Country Playhouse. It starred Barbara Feldon and Eileen Heckart.  I vaguely recall that production.

This spring, the play got a very good production at the New York’s off-Broadway’s Signature Theater where Gurney will debut Love and Money, a co-production with Westport and directed by Mark Lamos later this summer.

Gurny has called What I Did Last Summer a semi-autobiographical play.  It set in the summer of 1945 as WWII is winding down;  Germany has surrendered and by mid- August Japan will also.  The setting is a town on the banks of Lake Erie, where Buffalo’s upper middle class spend the summer. Charlie has just turned 14 with all that means — on the brink of puberty with the rebelliousness and restlessness of youth.  His father has been in the military and away from the family for years.  It is just Charlie, his older sister Elsie and his mother, Grace, who is trying to deal with two teenagers and her own loneliness. Charlie is friends with Ted, a slightly older Canadian teenage boy who father works in the town and Bonny, a teenage girl they are both lusting after.

In the beachfront community, also lives Anna Trumbull, an eccentric loner and artist.  In the 1960s and 70s we would call her a hippie.  Charlie is drawn to Anna.  He has noticed she posted a sign in the local hardware store for a boy to work for her.  Over the objections on his mother — the reason becomes clear much later in the play — Charlie visits Anna.  He is enthralled.  She is everything his family is not. She espouses unconventional ideas about life, religion, school all of which Charlie starts espousing with the fervor of a convert.  They don’t do much actual work, but she is determined to find his artistic talent, so they try drawing, pottery, sculpture and more.  She even lets him drive her beat up old car.

Of course, the tensions with his mother increase — he is less respectful and challenges all of her ideas.  He accuses her of being too friendly with one of the men also summering on the lake. And there are the other problems — the sibling rivalry between his older sister and him,  the competition between the two boys for Bonny and more.  The crisis is when he does want to return to Buffalo but to stay at the lake with Anna.

Director Jim Simpson has given a modern feel to this play set in the 1940s.  All the stage directions are read and projected above the mostly bare stage designed by Michael Yeargan with minimal props.  A drummer to stage left provides rhythmic accompaniment to the proceedings.

The cast is led Noah Galvin as Charlie, a young actor with a remarkable list of credits. He brings real authenticity to the young adolescent.  The other young actors — Juliet Brett as Bonny, Pico Alexander as Te and Kate McGonigle as Elsie are all good.  Carolyn McCormick gives the stressed and up-tight Grace the right note of franticness.  She is trying to hold it together for her children but there has been no letter from her husband, stationed in the Pacific, in weeks.

As the eccentric Anna, Kristin Nielsen makes her seem like a cross between Auntie Mame and an earth mother.  But you note a fierceness in her portrayal of this woman who is willing to do almost anything to separate Charlie from his mother.

Later this summer, the Signature will present a new play by Gurney, Love and Money in a co-production with Westport Country Playhouse where it will play July 21 to Aug. 8 before moving to New York.  The official opening is Aug. 20.  Mark Lamos, artistic director of Westport will direct.

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