'Loman Family Picnic' is a deft blend of fantasy and harsh reality

April 01, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

There are many types of poverty.

The mother in Donald Margulies' "The Loman Family Picnic" insists, "We are middle-middle class, smack in the middle," but the family is financially strapped. The husband and bread-winner, however, suffers from a more deep-seated poverty a poverty of the spirit that threatens to engulf his wife and two sons.

To counteract this, the younger son nourishes his spirit with a rich fantasy life. That wild and often comic sense of fantasy, blended with pathos, is what makes Margulies' moving play so theatrical, entertaining and challenging.

This challenge is impressively met by Center Stage's current production, under the direction of Michael Greif, who adeptly balanced a similarly tricky blend of tones in the theater's 1992 production of "The Baltimore Waltz." Together with a skillful cast headed by Robert Dorfman, Greif brings the play's contrasts to exuberant and heart-breaking life.

The play's title is derived from the fact that Mitchell, the younger son, is studying Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in school. Instead of a conventional book report, he decides to turn it into a musical comedy called "Willy!", featuring a production number called "The Loman Family Picnic."

Mitchell's fascination with Miller's play extends beyond schoolboy enthusiasm, however. Played by Rhett Creighton, the youngster tells the audience he can't get over the similarities between Miller's fictitious Loman family and his own. Not only do both families live in Brooklyn and have two sons, but the heads of both households are salesmen who, as Mitchell puts it in a lyric, are acting "a little weird."

In the case of Mitchell's father, Herbie, that weirdness is exacerbated by the financial strain of celebrating the bar mitzvah of his older son (Sam Rovin) with an elaborate party the family cannot afford.

The play's greatest leap into fantasy comes after the party, when Herbie cracks under the stress. Suddenly a colorful Mylar curtain descends and Mitchell -- in a flight of imagination that is part defense mechanism and part wish-fulfillment -- launches into the title song, whose appropriate opening lyrics are: "Hey, why don't we/get away from all this?/We all could use a little change of scene."

Dorfman's heart-rending depiction of Herbie is at the center of the production. A trained Ringling Bros. clown who has played exclusively comic roles at Center Stage in the past, Dorfman is cast against type here. He gives a performance that carries as much weight as the salesman's cases Willy Loman lugs home nightly in "Death of a Salesman."

The actor's clown background surfaces only once -- when Herbie cuts loose with a soft-shoe routine in Mitchell's production number. Because Dorfman brings such palpable world-weariness to the rest of the role, this jolt into imaginary joviality heightens the deep-felt sadness at the character's core.

June Stein's flamboyant portrayal of Mitchell's mother, Doris, leaves no doubt about the source of the boy's imaginative streak. Doris' escapes into fantasy include visits from a long-dead aunt (Dina Pearlman), as well as the ability to visualize four diametrically opposed solutions to her unhappy marriage -- all of which are acted out at the end of the play. However, as Stein plays her, Doris is a woman whose flights of fancy and melodramatic gestures are clearly a desperate effort to cover up the frustration she feels.

Donald Eastman's set, Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Mark Bennett's sound design increase the non-naturalistic quality of this domestic drama, which is set firmly in 1965, but which ventures much farther from traditional American theatrical realism than Margulies' better-known "Sight Unseen," which was produced at Olney Theatre last month.

The impact of Center Stage's production, however, stems not merely from the fantasy elements, but from their juxtaposition with the harsh reality of the emotions. The result is that while "The Loman Family Picnic" may be no picnic, it is affecting drama.

"The Loman Family Picnic"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 8 (no performances April 9). Sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. April 23; audio-described performance at 2 p.m. May 1

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240


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