October 30, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Desperate housewife
Signature Theatre, Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill, Anthony Bowden, Christine Lahti

Christine Lahti as Carly and Anthony Bowden as her gay son Chad in ‘Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman; courtesy Signature Theatre)

‘Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill’

Through Dec. 8

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington

703-573-SEAT

Signature-theatre.org

Fat is bad.

Lower paying professions suck.

And gay is worst of all.

These are the cardinal and frequently spoken rules of Carly, the uptight matriarch in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s terrific new play “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mills.”

Now premiering at Signature Theatre, the young playwright’s latest effort staged by out director Michael Kahn, exposes the underbelly of the American suburban dream, showing exactly what it is that makes a privileged yet essentially miserable family tick.

The Falls of Autrey Mill is a neighborhood — a grandly named nouveau riche enclave in an unnamed southern city. Colaizzo imagines a place rife with leafy cul-de-sacs where quietly desperate lives unfold behind Roman-columned facades. It’s here that casually bigoted Carly (stage and screen veteran Christine Lahti) perseveres to distance herself from her tacky working class roots, striving to be today’s June Cleaver with the picture-perfect family. But as her two sons Tommy and Chad (played by Christopher McFarland and Anthony Bowden, respectively) move into adulthood and her mostly absent husband Louie (Wayne Duvall) tires of keeping up with the Jones and looks for satisfaction elsewhere, Carly loses the grip on the illusion she’s worked so hard to create, and the results are chaotic.

“Pride” takes place over several days preceding a visit from a photographer who’s scheduled to snap the family’s portrait for the community newsletter. Carly has won best flower garden in the pricey hood and the triumph must be chronicled. It’s a big deal for Carly, but her family isn’t cooperating. Home from college, Chad announces to his mother that he’s gay and has a boyfriend. The older son Tommy tells her that he’s forgoing law school to manage a Chuck E. Cheese type restaurant, a job that he finds personally fulfilling. And her husband is showing signs of wanting to leave home altogether. The play is about how Carly and the family process these revelations.

Like their shoddily made but well-appointed home (compliments of scenic designer James Noone), Carly’s family is also falling apart behind its impressive exterior. She may appear all sugary sweetness and light, but just below the surface she’s tough as nails. Further down she’s extremely vulnerable. Darkly handsome Bowden’s Chad comes off impatient and angry, ostensibly irritated by his parents’ inability to accept his sexuality. But he too isn’t exactly what he seems. Beneath his brusque shell lies a needy, love-deprived, mixed-up adolescent.

McFarland is endearingly funny as the overweight and forever hungry Tommy, who awkwardly walks about foraging for food with his hands bound in big white mitten-like bandages (the result of freakish household accidents). He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s eager to connect with his parents, but he’s also careful to protect himself from their harsh judgment. And Duvall is perfect as the good ‘ol boy Louie stuck in a stale marriage.

From the moment the lights come up, you know exactly who Carly is. Lahti has taken the time to create a character not only with words but also her body and movements. She wrings the material for all its humor and pathos. It’s a commanding performance and a pleasure to watch.

But unlike so many icy WASP perfectionists (like the one Mary Tyler Moore played in the film “Ordinary People” for instance), Carly‘s heart isn’t entirely frozen. There might be hope for this family yet.

Following up “Torch Song” at Studio Theatre, “Pride” is director Kahn’s second local (and excellent) effort this season outside of his usual domain, the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Though very different, both plays explore family and being gay.

Last season at Signature, playwright Colaizzo garnered big attention with “Really Really,” his resoundingly praised take on complacent young adults living in New York. With “Pride” he further cements his reputation. Frequently funny, but also upsetting and at a couple points heartrendingly poignant, “Pride” proves a fully satisfying theatrical experience.

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