The American Dream
* * * *
reviewed by Genève Bacon
Director: Jess Wells
Starring: Michael Ackerman, CJ Breland, Kane Clawson, Kay Galvin, David Hopes
Where: North Carolina Stage Company, 33 Haywood Street, Asheville
When: Friday thru Sunday, December 9 - 19
Ticket price: $10, $15
Information: Call (828)669-4367
Those of us of a certain age may look back on the late Fifties/early Sixties with a certain nostalgia. World War II, the Korean Police Action, and Joe McCarthy were behind us; Eisenhower was president, and Kennedy was waiting in the wings; the economy was booming; Broadway entertained us with musicals such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story; and Vietnam was some far-off place that had nothing to do with us. Few of us took seriously the rumblings of discontent from the angry young playwrights of British theater, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton. After all, they weren't talking about our culture. We were living what everyone, everywhere wanted—the American Dream. Then Edward Albee, with the 1960 production of The Zoo Story, kicked open the door of our complacency and let in the unpleasant message that underneath our unprecedented prosperity, something was terribly wrong—with us. He quickly followed up this thesis in The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, and The American Dream (first produced in 1961).
While The American Dream was generally hailed by critics—"...packed with untamed imagination, wild humor, gleefully sardonic satirical implications, and overtones of strangely touching sadness..." Richard Watts, Jr., New York Post; "...a unique and often brilliant play...." Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker — some found it "nihilistic, immoral, and defeatist." As director Jess Wells notes in his program notes, Albee described the play as "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity. It is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."
It is now forty-plus years since The American Dream was first produced and we find ourselves divided between red states and blue states, between those who think everything would be peachy-keen if it weren't for those Muslim fanatics, gay marriage militants, advocates of women's reproductive rights, and those who think something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with this country. Given this dichotomy, Albee seems to have been justly prophetic.
Under the skillful direction of Jess Wells, ably supported by a sterling cast, The American Dream comes timelessly alive. It is, by turns, funny and scary as the characters of Mommy (CJ Breland) and Daddy (David Hopes) act out the marriage almost from hell (the marriage from hell Albee perfected in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?). As Daddy, Mr. Hopes gives a finely nuanced performance, subtly revealing that this colorlessly drab, emasculated man has some life in him yet. CJ Breland's Mommy is a high-energy nightmare—badgering, bullying, completely banal, and so, so sweet, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Kane Clawson gives a fine comedic performance as the delightfully lascivious Mrs. Barker. And Michael Ackerman as the Young Man who wanders into their midst adroitly balances the hunky sex appeal of his character with a little-boy-lost naivete. But it is the character of Grandma (Kay Galvin) who carries the play. She is the heart and soul of the piece and it is a mantle Ms Galvin wears with spunk and dignity. Her strength illuminates the stage, she is a mirror in which the other characters reveal their weaknesses, their flaws, their hypocrisies. Without a strong actress in the role, the play would founder, and without strong actors to back her up, the play would be lopsided. I commend Mr. Wells for his excellent choices in casting and for keeping the whole in balance. Together, they, not only entertain us, but give us an evening to think about.
The American Dream is an immediate theatre project production, presented under the auspices of the North Carolina Stage Company's Catalyst Series.