You Better Sit Down: The Civilians Rule Williamstown Stage

(Seen in photo above are Robbie Collier Sublett, Jennifer R. Morris, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller in a photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

Divorce. It's a messy business. But does it make for good theatre? The answer is a resounding yes.

The Civilians, a Brooklyn based Theatre Company, has found a way to deal with the subject in both an entertaining and insightful way. As is their unique gift, they populate the stage with lots of really interesting and meaty characters while being sure to incorporate some real belly laughs to relax the audience so it can connect with the familiar stories on stage. In our society divorce is nothing new. Yet as we come to realize during the course of the play, each one is unique.

With the self explanatory title of You Better Sit Down: Tales from my Parents Divorce the Civilians Production is a world premiere, having gone through extensive workshop presentations this past winter in preparation for the company’s debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. According to the pre-show announcement, it is the first time an outside company has taken the WTF stage.

Jennifer R. Morris. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The Civilians create original work derived from investigations into the world beyond the theater. In many ways the company is the “Sixty Minutes” of the theatrical world, having tackled such issues as urban renewal (In the Footprint), Evangelical Christianity (Let Me Ascertain You), climate change (The Great Immensity), 1950’s re-enactors (Maple and Vine), Armageddon and The Simpsons (Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play).

This seems to fit nicely into the emerging palette of interests of WTF’s new artistic director, Jenny Gersten. As the first season wraps up, one can begin to get a feel for her interests and direction. With Three Hotels, we saw the issue of ethical and moral corruption in the corporate culture explored as inferior baby formula was sold to third world nations while its corporate greedsters amassed millions. In Touch(ed) it was the effects of mental illness on relationships. (One might also put A Streetcar Named Desire in that same box.) With Lewis Black’s One Slight Hitch we explored contemporary relationships and marriage.

Matthew Maher. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

But of all the offerings this season, You Better Sit Down is the one that hit a home run. It was a success on every level, from the honesty of its writing to the sensitivity of its cumulative effect and its narrative, biographical brilliance as effective theatre.

To watch movies and television – which all too often portray divorce as a series of screaming matches with pot and plate throwing hysterics – one could be left with the impression that all separations are painful and traumatic. Sadly, too many Americans model their behavior after what they see on television. They don’t call it the “boob tube” for nothing.

The Civilians in their quest for a more accurate accounting had its actors interview their parents. They then used these verbatim transcripts to develop the larger picture which includes not only the divorce, but a full measure of what preceded and followed the big D itself.

So the play revolves around how the parents first met, decided to marry, came to bear children, grow apart and decide to separate. And their lives since then.

If The Civilians had chosen to focus on just the separation, this drama would be little more than a slice-of-life exercise and teach us little. Instead, they look at the long trajectory of the courtship and marriage leading up to the split which makes both parents both more human. Their eventual parting becomes more sympathetic as well as inevitable and logical.

Caitlin Miller. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

While the play investigates he terrible tears in their individual relationships, it is at the same time a loving tapestry of youthful hopes and desires sometimes thwarted, or turned cold or even sour. When romantic ideas of love brush up against the reality of living together over decades and enduring the inevitable hurdles of job loss, atrophy and indifference, it can be hard to keep love alive. Like the Hieronymus Bosch triptych Garden of Earthly Delights, the play touches on the initial attractions (Paradise), the good years together (Earthly Delights) and the unraveling (Hell), but with a cold dose of reality.

Under the disciplined direction of Anne Kauffman, the story is told by the four children of the various divorces: Mary Anne (Catlin Miller), Janet (Robbie Collier Sublett), Beverly (Jennifer R. Morris) and John.Frinde (Matthew Maher). For a good portion of the two acts they are seated in four chairs, each of which seemed to go with the character’s personality. Behind them is a wall and beyond that a kitchen on stage right, another room stage left.

The characters speak as themselves, the children of divorce, and as one or both of the parents they had interviewed. As the story is told projections of wallpaper and graphic patterns appear on the walls along with explanatory snippets of text explaining who they are or illustrating what they are talking about. At the beginning and the end we hear bits of the recordings of the parents themselves, giving just enough of the actual voices to deepen our understanding of them.

Robbie Collier Sublett. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Seated in their chairs, each actor relates their story, pausing once in a while to make a cup of tea, or make a phone call, but mostly they just sit. The genius of the director is the trick she employed to generate the feeling that things never stopped moving. She never let a character speak for more than a few minutes, and so the eye was kept busy darting back and forth between the actors, the projections, what one character might be doing in the other room while another spoke. The tact and subtlety with which this was done gave this play the feeling that we were in an intimate conversation with a group of friends.

Jennifer R. Morris was the strongest and most self assured of the characters, both as herself and as her mother Beverly. One could see that the daughter had picked up some of the worst characteristics of her mother, and that both could deliver ridiculous rationalizations with complete conviction. A bouquet of flowers to her.

The two sons were wonderfully played by Robbie Collier Sublett (also his mother Janet) and Matthew Maher (as his father John and mother Frinde). There was a somewhat wounded quality to Sublett’s character which seemed to indicate that he has a hidden issue that keeps him from fully sharing with his mom and has distanced himself from his own father. Maher had the most complex acting task, having to play not only himself, but also as mother and father, the only actor who was able to talk to both. His father John received a wonderful characterization replete with nervous laughter and other tics.

Least successful was Caitlin Miller who related her mother, Mary Anne’s, story. Miller has a quick sense of humor and expressive face, but was undermined by a lack of lung power, diction and a personal speech tendency that had no business finding its way into her onstage performance. Having stayed for the talk back it became apparent that the problems some had with hearing and understanding her story was the way she would clearly deliver the first phrase of sentence with weight and clarity, only to rush the second half of her line in a much quieter voice, as sort of a muttered afterthought. Too many young actors have picked up this sloppy method of delivering lines that makes one wonder who is teaching them for the stage. I am sure that many in the audience could hear every word, but for older audiences (welcome to WTF) this is unacceptable.

In any case, this annoying tic resulted in most of her punch lines being lost on much of the audience, and a less rounded understanding of her parent’s divorce than the others on stage. It is something that is easily corrected, and let us hope that future directors don’t let it slide by as it does in this show. Miller has great talent and just needs some technical polishing.

Mimi Lien’s scenic design found the perfect combination of polish and utility, and supplemented by the lighting of Ben Stanton helped guide the eye throughout the running of the play.

The performance is followed by post-performance talk back with those audience members who wish to stay.

The Civilians’ residency at Williamstown was a real treat for Berkshire theatre-goers seeking to keep up with emerging New York City companies. The company travels extensively, including forays into Boston where they have been part of the Arts Emerson series. They will return there this coming winter, and one can only hope they are invited back to Williamstown again next year, with another one of their fascinating investigations. Their first and all too brief run was completed in less than a week.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents The Civilians production of You Better Sit Down: Tales from my Parents’ Divorce. Conceived by Jennifer R. Morris and written by: Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, Janice Paran, Robbie Collier Sublett. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Scenic Design, Mimi Lien; Costume Design, Sarah Beers, Lighting Design, Ben Stanton; Sound Design; Leah Gelpe; Projection Design, Caite Hevner; Production Stage Manager, Megan Schwartz Dickert; Production Manager, Jeremiah Thies. Cast: Caitlin Miller (Mary Anne), Robbie Collier Sublett (Janet), Jennifer R. Morris (Beverly), Matthew Maher (John/ Frinde) A production of The Civilians at the Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival, August 16-21,2011.

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