STAGE REVIEW: The Anderson’s – a year in 3 acts
The new stage sensation, The Anderson’s, opened on January 1, 2003 staring Terry as the out of work father, Jan as the salary earning mother, and Katherine as the attractive and promising student in her last year of college. As the play opens Katherine is home for the holidays, but soon to return to New Hampshire and her studies at Dartmouth.
The play develops as two parallel threads, independent yet periodically touching. In the one thread we see Terry and Jan living their lives in suburban New Jersey mostly proceeding along long established patterns while in the other we see Katherine maturing into independence, tentatively exploring new patterns. Yet these threads touch in many significant ways: Katherine returns home periodically to rest from the hectic life of youth in the comfort of family, to exchange the materials of life from her homebound cache; Terry and Jan travel to Hanover, NH for visits, send money for tuition and rent, and communicate their encouragement, advice and news by email. The two threads move through the play like the strands of a braided rope, separate yet touching, each adding to the strength of the other, and jointly forming the sort of unbreakable bonds that help hold the world together.
The early scenes are full of pathos showing Terry in a balance between tension and boredom as he tries to fill his mornings searching the web for job openings, applying for those that seem possible matches for his skill and then sitting down to wait for the mail to come or the phone to ring to announce an interview – which rarely occurs. In several scenes Terry is wracked by guilt seeing Jan go off to work each day in spite of her fatigue from Lupus while he sits around the home doing nothing. The guilt is doubled by his reluctance to work on the long list of chores Jan has assembled for him mostly involving home maintenance and the creative ways he finds to avoid them.
The final scenes of Act 1 are dominated by the tension of uncertainty. As the academic year is drawing to a dramatic conclusion, Jan reluctantly decides not to submit papers to retire since the family needs at least one income. Will Terry get a job in time for Jan to retire or will she have to begin another school year and hopefully retire mid-year? Some of the tension for Terry and Jan is relieved by a brief visit to Cape Cod where Katherine is spending the summer. Lying on the beach in the sun, braving driving rain and wind-whipped waves to see whales breaching again and again, kayaking around the harbor, and wandering along the crowded streets of little shops, provide an all too brief solace from the strains of life back in New Jersey. Hard work provides another sort of diversion as Jan spends several weeks helping to pack up the accumulation of her parent’s lives in Iowa for their move to Tennessee and the sale of the family home. Finally the tension is broken in the denouement of Act 2 as Terry gets a new job and Jan is able to file for retirement, narrowly avoiding the need to start the new school year.
The play is strengthened by the inclusion of a contrasting drama in the developing maturation of young life. Opposing the mid- and late-life dramas of loss of employment, retirements, selling of family homes, we see the hopeful blossoming of a new career in its earliest stages. Near the beginning of Act 1, Katherine finally settles on a college major and a profession, choosing English as a major and secondary teaching as a career. Scene 3 of Act 1 closes with the pomp and circumstance of a grand and solemn graduation ceremony at Dartmouth, where Katherine appears in all her robed and tasseled glory. But late in Act 1 we learn that she will not have sufficient time to complete the required practice teaching experience before graduating. And so in Act 2 we see Katherine return to Dartmouth as a graduate student to complete one term of practice teaching. The scene plays on the irony of daughter beginning her teaching experience in the very month that mother retires from hers. Like the other, this thread has an interlude between the grand ceremony and the return to academic life. Katherine is shown spending the summer working and relaxing in Provincetown on Cape Cod. She shares this scene with her boyfriend Bill, another Dartmouth English graduate from Maine, who has an internship at a center for writers and artists in Provincetown. Both are able to grow artistically from contacts, courses and experiences living in the center.
Act 2 closes with the family at peace. With the tensions of unemployment resolved by Terry’s new job at ITT Industries, involving radio communications networks for voice and data. With Jan enjoying her new and well earned retirement, able to devote time to her pottery, sewing, books and book club, home improvements and adding to the growing to-do list for Terry. To ease the shock of total and abrupt severance from teaching, she is shown continuing some private tutoring, mentoring a teacher at her old high school who is new to teaching in a resource room and hosting a lunch in the Anderson home for the cognitive impaired students in a program to help them develop social skills. Katherine’s role in Act 2 is satisfying but somewhat less peaceful as she works long hours learning new skills while teaching, preparing lesson plans, learning to manage a classroom of teenagers and still attend the seminars and write the reports required by the teacher training program at Dartmouth.
But in typical dramatic fashion, Act 3 powerfully illustrates that even recently acquired peace can be interrupted by pain. In the first scene, Terry’s mother is struck by an automobile while crossing a street near her home. The scene is used to drive home the unappreciated dangers of cell phone use by drivers while also reminding us all how transient life can be. We see scenes of sedated and insensate pain of the 78 year old woman accompanied by the deep emotional pain of the gathered family members. The scene closes with the cessation of breath ending the pain for the one but only increasing it for the others.
Act 3 also illustrates the resilience of life as the family members work through their grief and while not forgetting, return to their normal lives. The final act closes on a more joyful note as the family gathers for holiday celebrations and reflects on the ups and downs, the joys and pains, the costs and the rewards, of a dramatic year and ponders what may come in the next.
A play such as this, with so many dramatic parts powerfully acted, make it difficult if not impossible to identify roles as leading versus supporting. The cast was well chosen for each role and each played their role to perfection. While some may be more critical of the costuming or the set construction, it is this reviewer’s opinion that this play will never be performed better in the future and he awaits with anxious anticipation the sequel that is sure to follow such a success. Performances continue for a few more weeks before a scheduled closing December 31, 2003.