‘Country House’ reveals uni­ver­sal fam­ily truths

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - STAGE - By Jon W. Sparks

“The Country House,” which opens this week­end at Cir­cuit Play­house, is a play about the­ater peo­ple that will as­suredly draw a lot of the­ater peo­ple.

Yet di­rec­tor Dave Lan­dis says it’s not an in­sider’s frolic but rather a skill­fully writ­ten work by ac­claimed play­wright Don­ald Mar­gulies that is re­lat­able to any­one.

“It’s about those per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences that every­body has dealt with,” he says. “The fact that it’s the­ater peo­ple just makes it a lit­tle more en­ter­tain­ing.”

The premise (which draws from Chekhov’s “The Seag­ull” and “Un­cle Vanya”) has a the­ater fam­ily and some friends gath­er­ing un­der one roof, partly be­cause some are in­volved in the Wil­liamstown Theatre Fes­ti­val that’s go­ing on and partly to com­mem­o­rate the one-year an­niver­sary of the death of a fam­ily mem­ber.

At the cen­ter is ma­tri­arch Anna (Jeanna Jule­son), a Broad­way ac­tress who has done it all and achieved great fame, although it’s fad­ing, and she’s deal­ing with the death of her daugh­ter the pre­vi­ous year. El­liot (Michael Gravois) is her son, de­scribed by Lan­dis as “not quite suc­cess­ful in his artis­tic en­deav­ors, bat­tling de­pres­sion a bit and search­ing for his true call­ing.”

Wal­ter (Bar­clay Roberts) is the wid­owed hus­band of Anna’s daugh­ter, a fa­mous Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor who used to di­rect on stage and who has brought his much younger girl­friend Nell (Kim San­ders), a TV ac­tress.

Susie (Brooke Papritz) is Wal­ter’s 19-year-old Yale stu­dent with no fond­ness for Nell and a gen­eral dis­like of ac­tors. Not part of the fam­ily is Michael (John Moore), a Hol­ly­wood hunk whose fame do­ing TV schlock doesn’t make him feel any bet­ter about sell­ing out.

“They all have slightly dif­fer­ent agen­das on deal­ing with grief,” Lan­dis says. “One thing I love about Mar­gulies is how he kind of peels back the veil of who th­ese peo­ple are so we see them in a mun­dane, ev­ery­day ex­is­tence deal­ing with very per­sonal is­sues. When it all comes down to it, they’re a fam­ily.”

There is am­ple wit with dra­matic mo­ments, Lan­dis says. “It’s char­ac­ter driven, and watch­ing th­ese peo­ple go at each other and talk about the state of art to­day all makes for fun fod­der.”

And what about stage peo­ple play­ing stage peo­ple? “It’s a great cast to work with,” Lan­dis says. “They bonded very tightly as a the­ater fam­ily, and shows like this tend to bring out that bond in per­form­ers, es­pe­cially when play­ing the­ater peo­ple.”

“The Country House” runs April 22-May 15 at Cir­cuit Play­house, 51 S. Cooper. Show­times: 8 p.m. Thurs­days, Fri­days, Satur­days; 2 p.m. Sun­days. Tick­ets: $22 open­ing week­end (April 22-24), $30 Thurs­days and Sun­days, $35 Fri­days and Satur­days, $22 se­niors/ stu­dents/mil­i­tary, $10 chil­dren un­der 18. Info: play­house­on­thesquare.org and 901-726-4656. Play con­tains adult lan­guage.

GSO TURNS 40

The Ger­man­town Sym­phony Orches­tra is cel­e­brat­ing its 40th an­niver­sary with a gala con­cert fea­tur­ing mu­sic di­rec­tors past and present.

The pro­gram, rich with fa­vorites, in­cludes Co­p­land’s “Fan­fare for the Com­mon Man,” Schu­bert’s Over­ture to “Zauber­harfe,” Ka­balevsky’s Vi­olin Con­certo in C Ma­jor with Daniel Gil­bert as soloist, Beethoven’s Eg­mont Over­ture, Smetana’s “The Moldau” and Wag­ner’s pre­lude to “Die Meis­tersinger.”

Con­duct­ing are past mu­sic di­rec­tors Pa­tri­cia Brum­baugh and John Hodges as well as the cur­rent mu­sic di­rec­tor, Ron­ald Ver­non. An­thony Gil­bert will con­duct the Ka­balevsky. The pres­ence of the two Gil­berts on this piece rep­re­sents their grand­fa­ther, Noel Gil­bert, founder of the GSO and its first mu­sic di­rec­tor.

Noel Gil­bert, who died in 1991, was a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to the Mem­phis mu­sic scene. He was a teacher at then-mem­phis State Univer­sity for many years and was a mem­ber of the Mem­phis Sin­foni­etta, which would be­come the Mem­phis Sym­phony Orches­tra. He was founder and con­duc­tor of the Mem­phis Con­cert Orches­tra, which per­formed sum­mer con­certs at the Over­ton Park Shell for more than 30 years.

In the late 1930s he was staff vi­o­lin­ist at WREC ra­dio, and in the 1940s he led WMC ra­dio’s staff orches­tra — yes, they did that sort of thing once upon a time. He was con­duc­tor of The Pe­abody Ho­tel Orches­tra af­ter World War II, and he did back­ground mu­sic with Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Carla Thomas, B. J. Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Pres­ley.

Ger­man­town Sym­phony Orches­tra 40th An­niver­sary Gala Con­cert: 7 p.m. Satur­day at the Ger­man­town Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, 1801 Ex­eter. Tick­ets: $12. Info: ger­man­town­sym­phony.org and 901-794-9730.

PER­FOR­MANCE NOTES

■ Bal­let Mem­phis last week­end staged “Cin­derella,” one of its grand, crowd­pleas­ing pro­duc­tions. It was a lovely pre­sen­ta­tion with Julie Marie Niekrasz in the ti­tle role and Jonathan David Dum­mar as the Prince al­ter­nat­ing per­for­mances with Vir­ginia Pil­grim Ramey and Bran­don Ramey.

As chore­ographed by Steven Mcma­hon, artis­tic as­so­ciate for Bal­let Mem­phis, the move­ment was firmly in the clas­si­cal bal­let tra­di­tion although it loos­ened up con­sid­er­ably when the wicked step­sis­ters took the stage. They were danced to slap­stick per­fec­tion by Rafael Fer­reras and Al­berto Gas­par.

The com­pany did the Mcma­hon pro­duc­tion four years ago, and there were re­peat per­for­mances by Niekrasz and Fer­reras. Also re­turn­ing as the step­mother was El­iz­a­beth Men­sah, whose grace and cool con­veyed an exquisite dread. Crys­tal Broth­ers was also back as the fairy god­mother, weight­less, pre­cise and lovely.

■ Mean­while, a much more in­ti­mate pair of shows ended a brief run last week­end.

Voices of the South al­ter­nated a cou­ple of pow­er­ful solo works, one a reprise from 2007 and the other brand new.

Re­becca Fisher wrote and per­formed “The Mag­nif­i­cence of the Dis­as­ter,” which won Os­tran­der Awards for its emo­tion­ally re­veal­ing true story, both funny and tragic, that won Os­tran­der Awards in 2008. Emily Fisher, Re­becca’s mother and a well-known pa­tron of the arts, was mur­dered 21 years ago. Re­becca wrote this one-woman show about the reper­cus­sions of the killing on the fam­ily.

The other show was Todd Berry’s “Be­yond the Box,” a very dif­fer­ent kind of fam­ily story that was fresh and com­pelling in its poignancy and hu­mor.

Berry started by re­gard­ing the at­tic filled with boxes of stuff that was over­whelm­ing him, left by his mother to sort out. It got him to telling some fam­ily sto­ries, which took him to talk­ing about his late fa­ther and the re­la­tion­ship, such as it was, that they had. It was about 45 min­utes of pro­foundly af­fect­ing sto­ry­telling, nicely paced, well thought-out and rich in de­tail. Berry says he’s work­ing on a sec­ond act that will be more about his mother. Can’t wait to see it.

Such one-per­son shows can be risky, shar­ing deeply per­sonal de­tails while keep­ing the viewer en­gaged. Voices of the South has a gift for find­ing works that res­onate in just the right way and is pro­vid­ing a valu­able out­let for lo­cal ta­lent to show su­pe­rior work. This is ex­actly the sort of thing that needs sup­port from the pub­lic — par­tic­u­larly the artis­tic com­mu­nity.

NOBY ED­WARDS

Jeanna Jule­son (from left), Michael Gravois and Brooke Papritz are the­ater peo­ple play­ing the­ater peo­ple in “The Country House,” open­ing this week­end at Cir­cuit Play­house.

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