All the Way Home
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 2, 2006
The usually reliable Transport Group stumbles with their current production, a revival of Tad Mosel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, All the Way Home. Granted, a big reason for that is the play itself, which is solemn, rambling, and unfocused. Unfortunately, director Jack Cummings III and most of his collaborators fall into many of the script's inherent traps, making for a long night at the theatre.
Based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, Mosel's play examines the effect of sudden, irreversible tragedy on one Southern family. The setting is Knoxville, Tennessee, during the summer of 1915. Jay Follet, a former drunk and hellraiser, has changed his ways and settled into a more stable life. He is a local lawyer on the rise, and has a doting family at home. His wife, Mary, helps him stay on the straight and narrow, mostly through loving support. But, she is deeply religious and won't stand for any drinking. Jay does not share his wife's faith, and at times it opens both an ideological and emotional distance between them. Mary is pregnant, but doesn't want to tell their inquisitive young son Rufus yet, because of the inevitable questions it will raise. She favors telling Rufus that the baby is in heaven instead of her belly, while Jay prefers the opposite.
Jay and Mary's respective families are full of colorful, dysfunctional types. Jay's brother, Ralph, is an alcoholic with no social graces. Mary's mother, Catherine, is practically deaf, and relies on the use of an earhorn. But, Mary's father, Joel, has taken Jay under his wing at the law office, and her aunt, Hannah, provides the family's matriarchal backbone.
So, when Jay unexpectedly dies in a car accident, both sides of the family are thrown into tumult. Ralph, a licensed mortician, is incensed that Mary's relatives send Jay's body to their longtime undertaker instead of him. Jay's father, John Henry, sure that the "hand of death" will soon be laid on him, expresses quiet disbelief at his son's death. And, Mary's previously unshakable faith is put to the test.
Plotwise, not much happens in All the Way Home. The play wants to be more of a character study, but has trouble discerning which one to study. Mosel pulls a bait-and-switch, establishing Jay as the protagonist in the first act right before killing him off early in the second. After that, the survivors are left to ponder the meaning of it all as each character is given a chance to shine. Eventually, All the Way Home half-heartedly settles its gaze on Mary, who is a less interesting character than her deceased husband. Jay has the precipitous air of a man who has beat back his demons but is still haunted by them. Mary, on the other hand, does not believe in such grey areas. Her beliefs are absolute, and when Mosel tepidly tries to challenge them he turns her into the equivalent of a hysterical, self-pitying teenager. Needless to say, handing the play over to such a one-dimensional character pretty much sinks it.
Cummings, a gifted narrative and atmospheric director, has nothing to work with here but mood. As a result, he falls victim to the play's indecisiveness. He emphasizes Jay and Mary in much the same way Mosel does, but is unable to establish a throughline for either of them. From scene to scene, Cummings's focus is the same as the playwright's, which deprives All the Way Home of thematic coherency. Is this a play about losing one's faith, or how to bolster it in the face of tragedy? Is it about the dangers of alcoholism, or the nuances of finessing dysfunctional family dynamics? Neither Cummings nor Mosel seems to have an answer.
The actors all turn in fine performances, but their efforts are mostly wasted on underdeveloped characters. The talented Monica Russell bears the brunt of this as Mary, navigating her character's emotional hairpin turns as skillfully as possible, only to be undermined by the role. Barbara Andres gives Hannah a convincing fullness, even though she's mostly relegated to offering moral support. The most successful performances are given by the actors with the most interesting roles. Joseph Kolinski turns the martyred, vindictive Ralph into an almost sympathetic character. And, Patrick Boll is magnetic as Jay: he gives the production a leading man sturdiness that is sorely missed when he's not on stage.
All the Way Home's cleanly emotional preciousness has not aged well. I commend Transport Group for their savvy in unearthing it, but I think their efforts are worth more than what this play has to offer.