The Middle Ages
nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
October 30, 2008
A.R. Gurney's The Middle Ages is a comedy written with a great deal of layers and depth. Although there are plenty of laughs to be had, there are also touching moments, characters we fall in love with, and a wonderful commentary on wealthy Protestant society life. Its main character puts it best: "The Middle Ages were very much like this—quiet, dull, punctuated by ceremony."
The Middle Ages chronicles the life of the wayward Barney from ages 16 (in the 1940s) to 46 (in the 1970s). Barney is born into a life of privilege yet never quite fits in like his brother Billy. He is intelligent, spirited, whimsical, and clearly not cut from the same cloth as the typical member of his father's exclusive men's club—which prides itself on "letting in a few Jews." Billy is constantly bucking against the traditions, the snobbery, and mostly his father. He finds solace in a friendship with Eleanor, a young new member of the club who, although attracted to Barney, ultimately wants the life of society and winds up marrying Billy.
Barney is constantly causing havoc at the club, trying to win Eleanor's love and rebelling against everything his father stands for. We quickly love Barney for his passion and root for him to get everything he wants. His father Charles happily buries his head in the sand and does not take well to Barney's antics, constantly making him feel like less than his brother. And Eleanor's mother does everything she can to keep her daughter away from Barney and push her into the arms of Billy.
This was my first experience with Theatre Breaking Through Barriers. The company is known for its casting of performers with physical disabilities. It was difficult for me to discern at first which actors had disabilities and which actors did not. This type of casting is a challenge for the entire team of performers and this group works together wonderfully to create a very entertaining version of Gurney's comedy.
Director Ike Schambelan's choices for Gurney's play are simplistic, but effective. I was entertained throughout. Each actor brings his or her personality and charm to their roles. Melanie Boland is delightful as Myra, Eleanor's social-climbing and overbearing mother. Terry Small easily meets the challenges of the energetic role of Barney. George Ashiotis receives many laughs in his dry delivery of high society "wisdom" as Charles. And Marilee Talkington proves to be a skilled actress in her portrayal of Eleanor.
The action of the play takes place in the trophy room of the club, a place Barney where often finds solace or gets sequestered by his father after misbehaving. Bert Scott creates a beautiful set and lights it well. The room is in many ways the heart of the club where Barney can escape and where so many significant moments happen in the lives of the characters. Scott creates this warmth with the dark woodwork, colors, and large window that welcomes the light of all times of day. Yet the uncomfortable, too-small sofa and mounted animal heads remind us what oppresses on the other side of the walls. Angelina Jerbasi and Chloe Chapin's wigs and costumes easily keep us informed of which decade we are in with accurate fashions and styles. The standards chosen by sound designer Richard M. Rose provide the perfect accent to the production.