American Classic: Albee & Wingspan

Any critic worth his or her salt should thrill with delighted anticipation to get to view works written by any of America’s most recognized playwrights, no matter the scale or caliber or success of the productions. These works form an integral part of the artistic web of American culture. Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams—they all have something remarkable to say, unique and universal, timeless yet of the moment.

Edward Albee, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1961

The same can be said of Edward Albee, whose masterful dramas have garnered him multiple Pulitzer Prizes as well as the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts in 1996 and a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005.

In 2008, honoring the distinguished playwright’s eightieth birthday, Off Broadway honored him by mounting a number of his productions. He directed two one-acts, himself: The American Dream and The Sandbox. Susan Sargeant’s regional company, Wingspan Theatre, just revived the duet, calling them “Edward Albee’s Two on the Aisle”, and performed them at Dallas’ Bath House Cultural Center October 7 through 23.

They made a quaint, entertaining duet. Although they share three main characters, created as something of an Albee family portrait, Albee did not intend them to be performed as companion pieces or sequential. Both seem to have largely offended audiences and critics alike in early productions as these play-lets fit into an absurdist worldview hardly shared before on American stages. Perhaps since? Some critics refused to review them.

First produced in 1961 in New York, The American Dream is a satirical look at the “American Family” and “the dream” personified.  In his play’s preface Albee describes the one act as “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”

L to R: LuLu Ward, Elly Lindsay, Barry Nash

The play opens on a conventional-appearing domestic setting then veers way off into savage absurdity, as disturbing to watch today as presumably in the 1960’s. Sargeant assembled a cleverly balanced cast of “types” and contrasting strengths, all capable performers equally at ease in ensemble or solo scenes. Sometimes actors employ squinting and grimacing to indicate intensity; I find it distracting, particularly in an intimate space like the Bath House with a script that “sells itself” as effectively as this one does. Expressed here by several actors in the heat of the beat’s moment, their eagerness to convince with overt facial gesture made me wish they had ratcheted their performance down a tad, allowing the play’s language and theme to carry them forward, instead. It’s a thought-provoking, evocative chunk of drama, doesn’t need any “help”.

The Sandbox, about fifteen minutes long, really upset audiences and critics when initially produced. First performed in 1960 but written after the longer, more complicated The American Dream, it offers sharper-drawn images and creates more powerful dramatic moments than the first piece. Award winning regional actress Elly Lindsay portrays “grandma” in both plays; the production’s success truly belongs to her performance in both. She refuses to be stifled. She informs Grandma with such delicious, unfettered abandon and brave joie de vivre, that her meeting with the Angel of Death at the end of The Sandbox hits the audience with real pangs of sadness. She’s an iron-willed Grandma, ready to take on the entire 21st century. She deserves immortality. I wonder how an actress would have presented this role in the early 60’s, before the mini-skirt, The Pill, Roe v. Wade and Women’s Liberation had added new layers of bolstering emotional context to women’s experience and an actor’s bag of tricks. Austin Tindle, as the Young Man in both plays, representing the American Dream in the first, the Angel of Death in the second, is an odd casting choice for these roles.  He’s dignified and charismatic and handles the symbol-laden, terse language expressively (how many ways can an actor say, “Hi” with interest?). But as a physical presence, he lacks mystery, menace and machismo. The ‘American Dream’ of the early 60’s would have been more of a rugged Cary Grant or Sean Connery type in appearance, not a sweet-faced Wally Cleaver. Perhaps director Sargeant was updating the role’s symbolic image to a contemporary sensibility that isn’t limited to stereotype hetero expectation? I’m not saying that Tindle is a weak actor; I had trouble finding him a good fit here. Rounding out the ensemble were Jane Willingham, Barry Nash, LuLu Ward and Rebekah Wheeler.

The set and costumes shone with lurid patina, parade bunting-like, in complimentary shades of All-American red, white and blue. Textures, skirt length, accessories, lingerie, set piece shapes, fine art decor and spatial orientation all seemed mainlined from pre-Vietnam 60’s. Rodney Dobbs and Barbara C. Cox demonstrate unparalleled simpatico as designers. I hope they sold the boxy ecru love seat advertised in the program, the main set piece.

Thank you, Wingspan Theatre Company and Susan Sargeant, for having the vision, courage and dedication to quality performance art to mount ground-breaking, lesser–appreciated works by one of America’s leading playwrights, Edward Albee. You are a real artistic contributor to this community; I’ll keep coming back.

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