I Never Sang for My Father
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
April 3, 2010
Many theatre companies make it their mission to discover the kind of new American play that turns conventional storytelling on its ear. There is absolutely a place for that kind of play, but the Keen Company's gripping production of Robert Anderson's classic memory play, I Never Sang for My Father is a reminder that there is also still a place for the traditional, straightforward kind of play that simply and humbly offers its story, and its heart.
At the top of I Never Sang for My Father we meet Gene Garrison, a kind, pensive man of about 40. He addresses the audience as he remembers a particular day when he was waiting to pick up his aging parents, Tom and Margaret, at Pennsylvania Station. It's the late 1960s and his parents are taking the train back to New York after spending another winter in Florida. Gene tells us his parents were bored with Florida, but if they didn't go, his father would come down with pneumonia and his mother's joints would become stiff with arthritis. Gene also lets us know that he loved his mother...and wanted to love his father.
It is easy to see why Gene loved his mother. When we meet Margaret, her upbeat and compassionate nature shine through, despite having to deal with difficult health problems. The tension between Gene and his father, however, is immediately palpable. Tom is a handsome, nattily dressed man with a booming voice, who seems to be in command, yet little by little it becomes clear that the outward bluster is a cover for a deeply insecure, resentful man, who is now in decline. Tom never served in the military, yet he's the kind of man who attempts to dominate as if he were a retired officer. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, continually telling stories from his past that he has imparted many times before, and yet criticizes others for doing the same. Gene has always been the "good son" to Tom, at the expense of his own desires, but he now hopes to relinquish his familial responsibilities, and move on with his own life. He has finally started getting over the tragedy of losing his wife, and fallen in love with a woman in California. He wants to move there, and is encouraged to do so by Margaret, but the fearful and manipulative Tom does everything in his power to guilt Gene into staying in New York, forcing Gene to ultimately come to terms with the reality that his father will never change and be someone he could ever love.
I Never Sang for My Father is a heartbreaking play that may hit close to home and be tough to watch for some, as it grapples with issues of aging, mortality, and unspoken family tensions, but it is this inherent discomfort that makes the play so worth the viewing. The performances of the talented ensemble are also first-rate. Matt Servitto plays the dutiful Gene with a nice balance of good-heartedness and gentle cynicism, and Keir Dullea is able to gain our empathy for the unlikable Tom, as we slowly come to understand the turmoil and loss that has formed him. Marsha Mason is a pure delight as the unflappable, warm-hearted Margaret, who, unlike Tom, does not allow the tragedies of her life to victimize her and those around her. Rose Courtney as Gene's estranged sister, Alice, is solid, and she does an admirable job forging through a scene with Gene that lays the psychoanalysis on a bit thick. Hal Robinson shows a nice versatility playing assorted characters throughout, though, at times, this economy in casting elicited some, likely unintended, chuckles at the performance I attended due to a couple of rapid character changes. Melissa Miller's doubling as a congenial waitress and dependable nurse works more seamlessly.
Jonathan Silverstein's directs with efficiency and patience, allowing the actors to find deeper meaning in the text and pauses, while still keeping the pace moving. Theresa Squire's costumes evoke the family's social class and time period nicely, and Josh Bradford's lighting and Bill Clarke's set design do a remarkable job of conjuring various locations within a small playing area. Their work also serves the play's somber tone.
At the top of I Never Sang for My Father, Gene observes, "Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship." Similarly, when the lights go down at the end of I Never Sang for My Father, the relationship with this disquieting play also does not end.