The people referred to in the title of A.R. Gurney's 1974 play, "Children," are all adults in their 30s, although they often revert to childish behavior. Loosely based on a short story by John Cheever, the timeless subject is a quizzical look at a privileged American family dealing with shocking surprises, in this case during the July 4 weekend in 1970.
TACT/The Actors Company Theatre is staging a crisp, entertaining revival that opened Thursday night off-Broadway at Theatre Row's Beckett. Gurney later became famous for gently lampooning the endangered species known as WASPs, (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), especially their stuffiness and their challenges with change.
In TACT's thoughtful production, director Scott Alan Evans finds the irony, humor and humanity in Gurney's work, which is a fascinating slice of social upheaval during the revolutionary 1970s. The wealthy clan summering at their large, seaside vacation home on an unnamed island off Massachusetts is desperately clinging to old-fashioned ways and prejudices, bracing against the incursions of a rapidly changing world.
Widowed Mother (Darrie Lawrence, staunch and elegant) has gathered her three grown children to reveal her plans to marry an old family friend and leave the summer house to them. Over one long, eventful Saturday, self-interest and repressed secrets and lies spring up during conversations on their large, ocean-front terrace. Everyone's complacency is challenged.
This family needs a seawall to hold them together, much as the eroding beach near their home does. At the center of their turmoil is a character never seen but frequently discussed: the selfish, sullen youngest sibling, a malcontent nicknamed Pokey. The offstage existence (inside the house, or off at the beach) of Pokey, his "bohemian" Jewish wife Miriam and numerous children of all three siblings, enables frequent disdainful references to class and cultural differences, especially about child-rearing.
Margaret Nichols plays daughter Barbara with a smug air of spoiled privilege, nicely portraying a simmering mixture of repression, insecurity and rebellion. Divorcing while having an affair with a local married man, Barbara tosses back cocktails while trying in vain to uphold meaningless family "rules," like the one about kids having milk with meals, never soda.
Good-hearted older brother Randy (Richard Thieriot, puppyish and quite appealing) is stuck in an adolescent, competitive, sports-obsessed loop. Lynn Wright is cool and thoughtful as his increasingly discontented spouse, Jane, who is beginning to find the cultural changes swirling around her rather appealing, especially the rise of feminism.
Brett J. Banakis' patio is an understated evocation of upper-class Northeastern shorefront living. Bradley King's lighting impeccably simulates daylight's progress, while Haley Lieberman's costumes are casually perfect. Lively sound by Stephen Kunken creates the impression of bustling offstage activities.
While Mother exemplifies the stiff-upper-lip attitude of a class taught to put on a brave face and make the best of things, even tragedy, Jane shows clear signs that her generation is ready to inject much-needed passion into their lives. In a dramatic final scene, Lawrence is both relentless and tender, as Mother dispenses "tough love" that will be healthy for the whole family, and Independence Day takes on a whole new meaning.