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THEATER REVIEW 'THE ALTO PART' : Family Fetters : A flawed play about mothers and daughters in the '50s is partly redeemed by a fine Ensemble Theatre production.

May 30, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you've never given much thought to how mothers live in daughters, consider the family ties that threaten to become family fetters in Barbara Gilstrap's "The Alto Part." It's a quietly poignant, if somewhat slow-moving, portrait of a mother-daughter relationship set against the backdrop of a small town in east Texas in 1956.

All the narrow-minded constraints of that particular time and place come through with a vengeance as Florene (Alison Coutts Jordan) struggles to raise her 12-year-old daughter Wanda (Anne Jacoby) despite the dual hardships of extreme poverty and an absentee husband--he's a "professional" wrestler touring the sleaze leagues south of the border. He calls home only often enough to perpetuate Florene's romantic illusions.

Those illusions threaten Wanda's future in the same way they have already ruined Florene's past. Despite her ability as a singer, Florene gave up her career ambitions for the sake of her marriage. And now Wanda's determination to follow a musical career stirs up all the frustration and rage caused by Florene's unlived possibilities. So she tries to block her daughter's chances.

It's not a desire born of conscious malice. In Gilstrap's vision, the unfortunate mechanisms by which children inherit the tragedies of their parents are played out in the hidden chambers of the human heart. Florene has every intention of being a good parent.

What she learns in the course of the play is that she has to resolve her own situation first before she gives her child what she needs. In so doing, she takes her first tentative steps toward seizing control for her life, an issue that would become a rallying focus of the women's movement later on.

Regrettably, the playwright's ambition exceeds her implementation. There's a sprawling, unfocused quality to the story that makes it hard to discern the real dramatic movement. And there is too much reliance on dialogue laden with overly precious symbolism.

The author's decision to keep males off the stage ultimately works against her, for it limits the momentum born of conflict--Florene's struggle for independence would have more impact (and also wider relevance) if her husband were less of a complete jerk and more of a presence for opposition.

Unlike "Steel Magnolias," another recently staged all-women play that created a credible exclusively feminine context in its beauty parlor setting, the absence of men throughout "The Alto Part" makes for an extremely artificial theatrical experience.

On the other hand, director Nancy Grinstein and an extremely talented cast labor valiantly to compensate for the script's limitations. There are some well-developed characters here in desperate search of a plot. Coutts Jordan and 12-year-old Jacoby make a convincingly bonded mother and daughter (they even look alike, especially after donning identical dresses at the end).

Ventura resident Peggy Steketee brings a refreshingly clear-eyed perspective to Florene's more realistic older sister. And despite some very contrived writing, Rojan Disparte and Claudia Dunn manage to find the human cores in their supporting roles.

But it's Gretchen Evans who owns the piece with her relentlessly comic portrayal of the curmudgeon landlady. Hers is a performance that's so finely detailed with eccentric little mannerisms that it is difficult to keep from focusing on her in each of her scenes.

Shaun L. Wellen's impeccable set and Kathy Pryzgod's lighting keep the technical end of things at an impressive level of quality--there's a scene in a tornado that seems literally about to bring the house down. But the generally unsatisfying script makes it hard to justify a long-distance trip for any but true aficionados of well-executed stagecraft.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Performed through June 22, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. except June 16 matinee at 2 p.m. at the Ensemble Theatre at 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $14 Fridays and Saturdays, $12 Thursdays, and $10 Sundays. Call 962-8606 for reservations or further information.

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