The good director will tell his actors never to play the future in the instant; never, in other words, tip your hand about what's coming--it distances the audience from the actuality of the moment. But what is one to do when fully the first third of a play does little but tip us off to portent ahead, and its denouement fastidiously settles around the simplistic theme of the importance of coping?
Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home" was well regarded enough during its 1960 Broadway run to have earned a Pulitzer Prize, but in its current production at the South Coast Repertory it doesn't appear to have held up to time--particularly in the wake of the group of death-and-disfigurement plays that have limped across the American stage in the intervening years, beginning with "The Shadow Box" in 1976.
"All The Way Home" has neither the Proustian sheen of James Agee's "A Death in the Family"--the work on which it's based--nor the elegiac lyricism of Samuel Barber's vocal and orchestral piece, "Knoxville: 1915" (also based on the Agee autobiography). What it does recall is an age of relative American innocence that corresponds to that of young Rufus, the boy whose father is killed in an auto accident. The play also reminds us that not only is the individual an extension of the family, but the reverse is true as well--damage to one exerts an enormous pressure on the other. It also gives us the shape of ritualistic healing in the wake of death.
The South Coast Rep has been flirting with Americana in recent seasons with such works as "The Diviners" and Arthur Giron's "Becoming Memories." When these plays have let us down (they've each had their pleasurable virtues), it's been in the area where characters are conceived as prototypes more than individuals. Martin Benson, who directs here, is one of our unsung--or undersung--directors, and he's careful to avoid the traps of sentimentality.
But the problem with this production is that it never gets beyond the idea of character into the specifics of character.
Part of that is the fault of the play. "All the Way Home" works when it catches a tone, a mood, a familial emotion in such a way that we feel one with the Follets' shock and suffering. But the characters' broad outlines need filling in. They're so blandly conceived that they act like supernumeraries in their own lives.
The SCR cast plays like a group portrait of right decent folk lovingly framed in WASP nostalgia. Nobody sweats in this family, or smokes a cigar, or has the kind of idiosyncrasies that can sometimes be a pain but in the long run make for genuinely fond recall--and, especially, particularize character.
Not that we need the Marx Brothers tumbling through the parlor or Tom Waits nodding off out back. We do need performances more mindful of human personality than dramatic theme (nothing in Melora Marshall's staid, rather grim portrayal of Rufus' mother prepares us for the Hecuba-like keening that follows on the news of her husband's fatal accident) and of how, in circumstances like this, people push their way to understanding through real pain. This cast doesn't convince us that its people feel very much at all.
Shigeru Yaji did the fine costumes (the men look discreetly uncomfortable as they file into the house in black funereal dress). Cliff Faulkner's set is sketchy and light for the period--it looks like an architectural mock-up for a proposed interior--and, combined with Tom Ruzicka's lights, gives us the feeling of watercolor--where "All the Way Home" lends itself to oils.
"Home" runs Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. until Nov. 23 (714) 957-4033.