Review: Gift Theatre’s “Summer People”

Keen performances elevate ‘Summer People’s’ tenuous script

 summer_people_Rob_Belushi_Justin_James_Farley

The Gift Theatre Company presents:

Summer People

by Jenny Connell
directed by Paul D’Addario
runs through Dec. 13 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Gift Theatre Company ensemble members Lynda Newton and Danny Ahlfeld open Summer People with a dramatic storm scene. We don’t yet know who this anguished couple is, but we understand that a daughter is missing, possibly dead; her father unreachable; and the relationship between the two on stage troubled.

summer_peopleIt’s a powerful scene, and these two dominate the production with keen performances throughout. Yet it creates a heavy foreshadowing over the rest of the play, which unfolds in a flashback to the preceding weeks.

Five damaged people have come together near Mount Desert, Maine, a place nicely sketched by Brendan Donaldson‘s set. Ahlfeld, we learn, is Scotty, manager of a campgrounds and general store there, a Vietnam veteran whose war experiences left him too emotionally scarred for any more ambitious life. Newton plays Kate, a Maine native who returns from New York City every summer with her family.

This summer, however, is different. Kate and her two daughters, Laura and Sam, arrive at their cottage as usual, but Kate’s husband has deserted them, upsetting all three. Kate struggles with single parenthood, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy.

Kate’s daughter Laura, also troubled by her emerging sexual awareness and the typical angst and rebelliousness of teenaged girls, fights with her mother – particularly as Kate and Scotty draw closer. Imaginative young Sam copes by videotaping everything that happens to show Dad what he’s missing and spends her time snooping around the campgrounds, especially at Site 54, where a clearly disturbed, newly discharged Marine grapples with the ghosts of his time in Iraq.

Ahlfield puts just enough Maine drawl into his voice without overdoing it, perfectly conveying Scotty’s laidback yet neurotic character in a fine counterpoint to Newton’s expressiveness as the often frenzied Kate. They create characters one immediately warms to. Ray Gray, a senior at the Latin School, and 9-year-old Grace Goble put in very natural performances as Laura and Sam.

summer_people_Danny Ahlfeld_Grace Goble As the young Marine, Rob Belushi (yes, his dad is Jim Belushi), often seems stiff -perhaps more so than the awkwardness his role demands. He loosens up only momentarily in a couple of scenes with Justin James Farley and Minita Gandhi, who play characters out of the Marine’s time in Iraq. Or perhaps it’s just that this character isn’t very well developed, but a sort of cardboard case of shell shock. Outside of his war experience, we learn nothing about him – not even his name.

While the first scene let us know something bad is going to happen, when it comes it’s a brief and abrupt anticlimax. The tragic final scene quickly becomes predictable, with far less drama than the opening, and the build up lacks tension. Director Paul D’Addario‘s generally good staging comes apart a bit, too. The restraint that serves most of the play quite well doesn’t fit here.

At 70 minutes, without intermission, Summer People feels like two-thirds of a play – short and somewhat tenuous. What there is, is worth seeing, but I’d have liked to have seen the rest. A longer, two-act script might have overcome the heavy-handed forewarning of the first scene, and conveyed something more than the obvious message that war makes people crazy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Free parking is available in the gravel lot at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. No late seating permitted.