Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Over and Over Again

I’m sick of watching what has become of our country.  Mass slaughtering reduced to biblical rhetoric of good vs. evil, with responses of tougher immigration laws if the murderer is anyone of middle eastern descent and “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families if the assault is committed by a Caucasian nut job. 

Good vs. evil.  “May God be with you,” offered to the Texas town of the church shootings.  In a church of worship!  Where was God at that moment?  How can these incidents be reduced to the simplistic good vs. evil?

It plays into our psyche of “good guys” coming to the rescue, the rationalization that MORE guns are needed by the “good guys” to offset those carried by the “bad guys.”  Where is the Lone Ranger when you need him?  Even better, Superman!  The Texas Attorney General suggested that churches should consider armed worshipers.  This is a solution?

Let’s get serious about gun control once and for all.  If we had more restrictive gun ownership legislation after the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, where would we be today?  It has to start sometime, and the moment has arrived to ban assault weapons.  Go a step further and require registration of weapons as we do motor vehicles.  Provide a government cash bounty for anyone turning in an assault weapon for a period of time, no questions asked.  Anyone in possession of such a weapon after the bounty period is breaking the law. 

This does not nullify the 2nd amendment, but it brings it more into alignment with today’s weapon technology which the founding fathers could have never imagined.  If the NRA doesn’t like it, let them own muskets, the weapon of choice when the amendment was enacted.

Our gun violence and lax gun laws are the worst of developed countries. Many other countries just ban gun ownership and their lack of gun violence verses ours reflect that and cultural values as well.

And, please, the false equivalency argument of they’ll use trucks instead, so why shouldn’t we ban trucks is specious (as those who make the argument know).  Any politician who can say that with a straight face ought to be run out of office. But as the Texas massacre takes place on the heels of the horrid truck terrorist attack in Manhattan, NRA apologists are quick to make that facetious case.

Trump responded to the Texas massacre saying “I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation.”  Yes, mental health problems need to be simultaneously addressed, but it IS a guns “situation” as well.  And why did he genuflect to the NRA, rescinding a regulation that makes it harder for people with mental illness histories to purchase guns?

Our “leaders” must offer more than condolences and prayers to the thousands and thousands of families who have been impacted by gun violence and those who will be victims in the future. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Two Unlikely Companion Pieces

I just read my first illustrated book, an idiosyncratic history of New York City, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York by Julia Wertz.  The genre is “comics,” but the New York Times gave it such a glowing review, and since my love of NYC – where I grew up and lived as a young adult --- is so deep, I couldn’t resist owning this fetching coffee table book.  It’s easy to read and a candy feast for the eyes for an old New Yorker, although as a kid I grew up in Queens, but that still counts!

Obviously, it can’t be a comprehensive history.  Wertz takes bits and pieces of the city’s history – the ones that particularly appeal to her -- and weaves them together in a graphic time machine of sorts, frequently juxtaposing the “then” and “now” scenes.  Just a glance at the “Table of Contents” underscores the eclectic nature of the history:

She tends to focus on those aspects that are not touristy.  It reaches across generations.  She’s young enough to be my daughter or perhaps even granddaughter.  As she is not a New Yorker by birth, and no longer lives there, she sees the city in a way a native New Yorker might not, in the way that I do.  I took all those sites for granted and it makes more of an impression in retrospect than it did then.

I enjoyed her journey through parts of NYC I’ve known and other parts I did not know.  Also I appreciated her quirky selection of topics such as the origins and “formula” for the “egg cream” which took me back to my childhood at a local luncheonette in Richmond Hill, Queens, 107th Street and Jamaica Avenue, called Freers.

In fact, if there is one disappointment in the book, it is that she tends to give short shrift to Queens, as opposed to Brooklyn where she lived in Greenpoint during her NY years.  Missing are iconic scenes of my youth and I think of the confluence of Myrtle, Hillside, and Jamaica Avenues as ground zero where Jahn’s, the RKO Keiths, and the Triangle Hofbrau still live large in my memory!.  All gone now.

Those figured prominently in my teenage years whereas during grammar school days other beloved places were in South Richmond Hill, 107th St near Atlantic Avenue.  One of the first Carvel’s was there or some days we’d bike over to Jamaica, Queens where there was a Wonder Bread factory where workers would give us hot bread from their oven.  There was also a slaughter house not too far away and we’d peer through knotholes to see chickens dancing around without their heads before we were chased away.  Also on Atlantic was a park on 106th St. where we played stickball, punch ball, handball, any kind of game you could play with a Spaldeen.

Along Jamaica Avenue I remember the Gebhardts bakery off of 111th street whose crumb cake was divine.  Also there was a fish store around 112th where they also cooked greasy French fries and served them wrapped in newspaper.  We got our school supplies from Lipchitz or Woolworths.  Right near Lipchitz was the Richmond Hill Savings bank where my mother encouraged me to open an account to save my pennies, and I always felt I was entering a church when I went there with my junior savings account.

Overhead was the Jamaica Avenue El which on rare occasions was our escape into NYC, a great adventure as a kid, but I usually took it early Sat morning to go to the Van Wyck Lanes where I could bowl a few games for 15 cents each if I got there before 9.00 am with my own ball (I once bowled a 227). 

We’d play ball until dark, a round sewer top for home plate, or stoop ball, eat dinner and then wait for the ring of the Bungalow Bar Man, begging our parents for a 10 cent chocolate pop.  The games we played.  Anything to stay out of the house.  Steal the bacon, Ringolevio, yo-yo duels, card games like war, flipping baseball cards, dodge ball and the list goes on.

Forest Park was a draw, with a carousel and later in my teenage years, a walk along the railroad tracks with friends, putting pennies on the rail and then running back to see them after a freight train had passed.  The Park was also a great place to build a secret fort.  Or for sledding.  And for playing baseball at Victory Field.

On Halloween we would get apples, popcorn or crackerjacks, just take a handful, no need to worry back then that there would be a razor blade in the apple or the popcorn poisoned.  And on Thanksgiving our parents would blacken our faces with burnt cork, dressing us as bums, and we would go around the neighborhood asking "anything for Thanksgiving?"  I think we normally received a few pennies.  Into the bank account!

We got around on our Schwinn bikes, clothes-pinning playing cards to the wheel frames so the spokes would make a racket.  As teenagers we sought out older kids to cruise Queens Blvd (preferably in a 55’ Ford such as this one I saw recently at an antique car show – 

strange to be looking at “antiques” that were just part of my life) or hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach where we would work hard to get a tan, but usually left with a blistering sunburn (my Dermatologist now thanks me for my stupidity).  Also part of our teenage years was spent at the Hillside Rollerdrome Skating Rink on Metropolitan Avenue.

I could go on and on.  But I see I am digressing into reveries, none of which I could criticize our author, Julia Wertz, for not including in her “unconventional history.” It would have been nice though to include the institution that was Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor!  I’m also sorry she failed to carrry the Brooklyn Paramount in her illustrations of iconic NY theaters, which as you can see here is now one of the gymnasiums belonging to LIU. 

Her writing this history has naturally given rise to these memories and her work is a “must have” for an incurable (albeit former) New Yorker.  Plus there are a number of scenes which struck home in the book, but I’ll mention only a few.  The first is her illustration of Max’s Kansas City, a joint, restaurant, theatre which I used to go to with other colleagues on special occasions from the publishing company I worked for in the mid 1960s.  We always had to have one of their iconic Bloody Mary’s.  Sometimes they would have an experimental theater production on the second floor, the kind you’d see at CafĂ© La MaMa in the East Village. 

But the illustration that really hit home is coincidentally both on the cover and at the end of the book, a stroll down the Bowery.  I kept looking at it and said I know this illustration for some reason.  Well, when researching the history of my family photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, I found the building my great grandfather and great uncle bought in 1866 to begin a business which would survive 120 years in NYC.  That building was 142 Bowery and there it was in Wertz’s book as well as her selection for the cover.  Here’s her illustration and a picture of it today.  So, I found that sort of thrilling.

She’s also irreverent, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but very respectfully.  She’s downright funny, as this illustration of “subway etiquette” illustrates:

As well as her quip about “micro-living” this, as she points out, is a trumped up idea of justifying astronomical rental fees for small spaces: 

She can also be very philosophical as one illustration has her on one of her “long city walks” saying to a friend, “I’m, perpetually fantasizing about a time I never experienced, and imagining a life I’ll never live.”  I might know a little more about the former but we’re in the same boat regarding the latter.

Most of all, I am regretful that I didn’t take more careful notice of everything when I was roaming NYC, having lived in Queens, Brooklyn (Park Slope and Downtown), the East Village (only briefly with a friend), and then the upper West Side.  See this entry for fuller information on that.  And, not only regretful because of that, but my encroaching old age makes only an occasional return to the city possible now, never to live there again.

While I was reading and enjoying Wertz’s “comic” table top book, I was also engrossed in another work by a New Yorker, the great writer, particularly known for his professional writing on baseball, Roger Angell.  But he is so much more than a baseball writer, and I’m closer in age to him (he’s turning 98 and still writing!) than I am to Julia Wertz.  They actually have The New Yorker magazine in common, Wertz contributing cartoons and Angell a long, long established writer for them.

This Old Man: All in Pieces is a potpourri of memories, the consequences of what it means to be the last man standing, the losses, and homage to NYC.  I feel that I’m right behind him on the journey,  the realization that my much operated on body is moving into the category of “this old man” as well;  I feel it.

The title of the collection is derived from his essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 2013.  It is a must read and it gives one an appreciation of his writing talents, so effortless and natural. 

It includes “farewells, letters, and tributes” to those he has known , “our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight.  I would like to think of mine as fellow voyagers…Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”

His tribute, “Over the Wall “ to his late wife, Carol, written only months after her death starts with Carol doesn't know that President Obama won reelection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn't know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn't know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn't know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment. Carol died early last April….

What the dead don't know piles up, though we don't notice it at first. They don't know how we're getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don't know that we don't want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don't want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they're in a hurry, too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election…..

There are scores of writers he worked with and befriended, one in particular, John Updike, who comes up again and again in these essays, bringing the writer to life with personal quips.  He also recognizes the genius of Updike’s writing:   
Updike's writing is light and springy, the tone unforced; often happiness is almost in view, despite age or disappointments. He is not mawkish or insistently gloomy. Death is frequently mentioned but for the time being is postponed. Time itself is bendable in these stories; the characters are aware of themselves at many stages. This is Updike country: intelligent and Eastern, mostly Protestant, more or less moneyed.

Angell relates an anecdote regarding how Updike accidentally got to see and write about Ted Williams’ final at bat of his career at Fenway Park, hitting a home run.  Updike was in the area to meet a woman at her place on Beacon Hill and was stood him up!  So he made his way to Fenway and was there to witness the consecrated moment and famously wrote about it in a piece for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”  Here is the confluence of literature and baseball, a legend elevated into a literary masterpiece:

Fisher threw [a] third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. [Center fielder Jackie} Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished. Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs-hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

In accepting the J.G, Taylor Spink Award at the American Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Angell acknowledged his debt to baseball:

My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heart-breakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime indeed. Fans know about this too. Nowadays we have all sports available, every sport all day long, but we're hanging on to this game of outs, knowing how lucky we are.

Roger, I know what you mean!  In this crazy world baseball remains essentially unchanged except for the amusement park nature of many of today’s fields.  I liked it more in the days of no mascots, flashing scoreboards, fireworks, enclosed stadiums, constant “music.”  Let ‘em play ball!

Tying these two books together may be a stretch, but there is also Roger Angell the inveterate New Yorker.  In a letter to Tom Beller who was researching a book about J.D. Salinger, Angell imagines what Madison Avenue was like when he probably passed “Jerry” as he refers to J.D., both unaware of the other….

I'm pretty sure that Jerry Salinger would have walked toward Madison, not Lex, in search of that pack of cigarettes. He could have tried at the little Schmidt's Drugstore, two doors north of 91st Street on the NE corner of Park, but probably that was still a pure drugstore. It had one of the pharmacist's vases of mauve water hanging in the window…. Madison then was nothing like Madison now. The gentrification began in the 1980s, I believe. It was a businesslike avenue before that, and in Jerry's time, with two- way trolley tracks in the middle. All traffic was two-way. It had newsstands, a Gristede's (on the NE corner of 92nd); a liquor store or two; a plumber's store, with a bathtub in the window (mid 91st-92nd, on the east side of the avenue); a florist's (J. D. Flessas, on the SW corner of 91st); numerous drugstores (including Cantor's on NE or SE corner of Mad and 93rd, depending on which year we're talking about, and, maybe a bit earlier, a nearby Liggett's); plus shoeshine and shoe repair shops, hardware stores (probably Feldman's, even then), etc., etc. The Hotel Wales was already there, east side of the avenue between 92nd and 93rd, but much seedier then.

Lexington was much the same, also with trolleys-the trolley cars on the two lines were not identical in appearance-and with the same stores, maybe more groceries or butcher shops, but all of them cheaper and with a slightly less affluent clientele. More laundries; more of those basement ice, coal & wood places. Maybe some deli's but they weren't called deli's then. Lexington and I think 93rd had a Lucky Lindy coffee shop. But neither of the two avenues felt affluent; they were useful. Almost all the buildings along them were four-story brownstones. Madison, as you noted, was on the same geographical level as Park; Lex was downhill from Park. There was some construction going on in these blocks all through this time, depression or no depression.

Salinger and the younger me probably passed each other more than once on the street back then, all unknowing. We each knew that the wind was from the east on gray mornings when we woke up with the smell of hops in the air, blown from the huge Ruppert's Brewery, which lay east of Third and north from 90th Street.

Two entirely different generations, but dealing with life in the Big Apple, then and now.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Las Vegas Forgotten Already

Buy guns, kill people, console the victims’ families, talk about legislation, forget and move on to the next news cycle, then repeat. 

Less than a month ago the Las Vegas massacre dominated the news, followed by talk of gun control regulation, an immediate increase in gun sales fearing the latter, and promises of at least regulating bump stocks that convert semi automatic weapons into machine guns . Now it seems like it never happened, 58 people killed, hundreds injured.  This is the pattern of the past. The NRA has puppet politicians well under control. 

Imagine if the automobile was just invented and people went out and bought them, no license or testing required, few traffic laws, and who needs stop signs and lights?  Autos still kill more people than guns, but those deaths now are nearly neck and neck.  We choose to regulate automobiles, testing and licenses required, registration so we can track who owns what and if someone buys or sells more than a certain number of autos each year, he/she is considered a dealer and another level of regulation is reached. 

Today, crazy people like Stephen Paddock can amass a war arsenal without any tracking information.  Regretfully this means giving up some privacy, but we give it up to drive a car, why not owning a gun? 

My entry after the San Bernardino tragedy almost two years ago (written during the heated election season, thus explaining its political bent) seems to be as relevant today so until the next inevitable incident, I repeat….

Tuesday, December 8, 2015
It Can’t Happen Here?

Unfortunately, the horror in San Bernardino has fed into all of this, “legitimizing” such dangerous rhetoric and escalating it to personal attacks on President Obama (who now has low polling numbers about keeping America “safe,” the exact inverse of what those numbers were after bin Laden was nailed) - and subsequent accusations that any call for stronger gun control laws is merely politicizing the San Bernardino tragedy.

But such calls have gone on for years with fierce Republican and NRA opposition.  I do not naively believe that better gun control laws and enforcement would magically eliminate such tragedies, especially in the short term.  But I do believe that the Second Amendment, which was written in the days of musket rifles and flintlock pistols, needs serious updating.

At that time, we needed an armed militia and also the founding fathers believed that an armed citizenry would be deterrent to the rise of a despotic government.  The world has changed since then, weapons of war unimaginable to our forefathers, and, now, mostly in the hands of the military and law enforcement.  To make some of the same weapons legitimately available to the citizenry no longer serves the purpose of protecting us from a despotic government as the military will always have superior weaponry (is an converted AR-15 adequate protection against a tank?). The proliferation of automatic weapons just further endangers us all, giving us a false sense of security by just having one in our closet.

No, this is a country of laws and checks and balances and we have to depend on our tried-and-true institutions as well as the much maligned (by Trump in particular) fourth estate to keep our government transparent and trustworthy. If some fringe element threatens us in our homes and public places, we need better intelligence to prevent it and rapid response law enforcement to protect us.

Fully automatic weapons (ones that operate as a machine gun) need to be banned, and guns should be registered just like a car, an equally dangerous thing.  That means getting a license, passing a rigorous background check and license renewals (a gun owner having to report if it is sold, just like a car).  Guns for self defense, hunting and target practicing are understandable but how can one argue that an automatic weapon is needed?  Certainly not for hunting (where is the sport in that?).  Do we really want our neighbors to be totting an automatic weapon citing Florida’s ambiguous “stand your ground” law as a justification?

Will that keep guns out of the hands of the “bad guys” as the Republicans like to call them?  No, but it’s a start and of course the devil is in the details of how such gun control is administered.  Senseless to get further into it here – I’m merely expounding an opinion.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Little Foxes -- Avarice and Malice Erupt in Dramaworks’ Skillful Production

Dramaworks opens its 2017/18 season with a masterpiece, The Little Foxes, reimagined with spellbinding staging, imaginative costumes, and impressive acting,   It is an outstanding production, especially as the director, J. Barry Lewis was unexpectedly called away for personal reasons half way through rehearsals and Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director Bill Hayes ably stepped in.

Although written in 1939 and set in 1900, The Little Foxes is as relevant today as when written by Lillian Hellman, arguably among the greatest American playwrights of her time, foreshadowing the great family dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.  It is set during the waning years of the Reconstruction, the gentility of southern aristocracy transitioning to the New South, and the advance of unrestrained, unscrupulous capitalism of the Gilded Age.   Hellman’s work was darkened by ten long years of a depression and the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Kathy McCafferty, Dennis Creaghan, Frank Converse, James Andreassi, Denise Cormier, Caitlin Cohn, Taylor Anthony Miller, Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
 The Little Foxes theme of unconscionable rapacity strongly resonates in our own time with essentially a plutocracy ruling our nation.  The famous quote from the play is spoken by one of the black servants, Addie, “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts.  Then, there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.  Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”  Director J. Barry Lewis calls that the “backbone” of the play and it is omnipresent in this production, melodramatic in the contrasts it projects.

Two factions in the play represent those “who eat and those who are eaten.”  The former is depicted by the Hubbard family:  Oscar, who married Birdie a member of the southern aristocracy for the sake of cotton and the plantation, his older, shrewder brother Ben, and Birdie’s and Oscar’s loathsome son, Leo.   Oscar, Ben, and Leo form a triumvirate of venality, and are joined -- or even outdone -- by Regina Hubbard Giddens, their sister, who married -- with great expectations of wealth -- Horace Giddens, a banker.

The Hubbard clan is in sharp contrast to the rest of the characters:  Horace himself, who in his dying days sees the immorality of his prior ways; the fragile and much abused Birdie, Oscar’s wife; Alexandra, Regina and Horace’s dutiful, young daughter; and the “downstairs” people, the black help Addie and Cal. 

The Hubbards are ruthless in their dealings with the people in their small town, especially the poor whites and the blacks who have survived slavery.  The brothers have an investment scheme with a Chicago manufacturer, William Marshall (well played by the veteran actor, Frank Converse, jovial, stalwart but vulnerable to Regina’s flirtatious charms), to build a cotton mill in the area to take further advantage of cheap southern laborers.

However, the Hubbards need more money to invest and have to turn to Horace, who is ill and has been away at a hospital in Baltimore for months.  Regina must get the money from her husband and will stop at nothing to get her share as well – and more -- knowing full well that he is a dying man.  Regina inveigles their daughter Alexandra to bring her father home, under the pretense of making him more comfortable, but with only one thought in mind, to get the money.

Once home, Horace discovers that the brothers and his nephew have embezzled bonds from his safe deposit box for the investment, and tells Regina he will revise his will to virtually block her from profiting as well.  Not one to be outsmarted, she uses her knowledge of the embezzlement to blackmail her brothers.  

The Hubbard family is plagued by infighting, intrigue, and revenge. Their furtive looks on stage speak volumes.  Hellman plays out their greedy machinations as naturally as a walk down the street, almost as products of natural selection, becoming what life intended for them.  Indeed, as Lillian Hellman said in an interview, “I merely wanted, in essence, to say: ‘Here I am representing for you the sort of person who ruins the world for us.’”

Kathy McCafferty, Denise Cormier Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
In so “representing,” Hellman creates two of the preeminent female roles in a single American Drama. Birdie, is played by Denise Cormier, her PBD debut, capturing the character’s vulnerability and sad innocence.  This is in stark contrast to Regina, played by Kathy McCafferty who stalks the stage with calculating malevolence.  As different as they are, they share the commonality of women trapped in a man’s world at the turn of the century.

Birdie’s “escape” is to dream of returning to her old family plantation, Lionnet, the way it once was, Denise Cormier channels Birdie’s disconnection with reality: ”I'd like to see it fixed up again, the way Mama and Papa had it. Every year it used to get a nice coat of paint-Papa was very particular about the paint-and the lawn was so smooth all the way down to the river, with the trims of zinnias and red- feather plush. And the figs and blue little plums and the scuppenongs.“ 

Denise Cormier, Caitlin Cohn Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Yet she is also the innocent truth teller, expressing the ugly reality about her husband’s love of shooting small animals for sport while the blacks go hungry and are begging at the door: “It’s wicked to shoot food just because you like to shoot, when poor people need it so.”  She is an alcoholic, something she admits so painfully to Horace, Alexandra, Cal and Addie, musing about her husband Oscar when she was first married, “he was kind to me, then.  He used to smile at me. He hasn’t smiled at me since. Everybody knows that’s what he married me for. Everybody but me.” Cormier’s performance is heartbreakingly ethereal and memorable, particularly her unconditional love for her niece, Alexandra.

Kathy McCafferty, Rob Donohoe,
 Photo by Alicia Donelan
The leading role of Regina is totally owned by Kathy McCafferty who revels in Regina’s venality while still leaving the audience feeling some empathy as she’s an ambitious woman held prisoner in a male dominated world.  She was victimized by her father leaving all the money to her brothers and then by the brothers themselves.  No wonder she perceives her escape as having what the men have, power and money.  McCafferty’s performance walks that fine line, making Regina’s actions plausible although reprehensible.

When Horace first comes home and learns why Regina really wanted him back, Regina’s words to Horace wound, one of the several emotional peaks of the play.  McCafferty dips her dialogue deep in cynicism explaining why she married him in the first place: “You were a small-town clerk then.  You haven’t changed….It took me a little while to find out I had made a mistake.  As for you – I don’t know.  It was almost as if I couldn’t stand the kind of man you were --- I used to lie there at night, praying you wouldn’t come near. “ 

James Andreassi, Dennis Creaghan
Photo by  Alicia Donelan
The Hubbard brothers are detestable in their own distinctive ways.  James Andreassi portrays Oscar as a bully, abusive and dismissive of his fragile wife, and demeaning of his odious spoiled son, Leo, played by Taylor Anthony Miller with a hang-dog look, anxious to please with a phony smile (even his mother, Birdie, confesses that she does not like her own son). 

But Oscar is also a tool of his older brother Ben. The PBD veteran actor, Dennis Creaghan, portrays the behind-the-scenes manipulator as if it is just intrinsic to his personality.  In an environment where duplicity and suspicion reign, Oscar delivers a line which is central to the play, “It’s every man’s duty to think of himself.”  Yet it is Ben who is prophetic:  “The century’s turning, the world is open. Open for people like you and me. Ready for us, waiting for us. After all, this is just the beginning. There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country…and they will own this country some day.”  It is pragmatically and chillingly delivered by Creaghan, prophesying today’s world.   

Denise Cormier, Rob Donohoe, Caitlin Cohn
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Horace Giddens is movingly played by Rob Donohoe, a man whose illness has given him new insight into the errors of his former ways. Donohoe shows the distress of knowing he is a dying man trapped in such a toxic environment but resolute and protective of his daughter. He delivers the crushing message to Regina explaining why he intends to redraft his will with all the repressed fury he can muster: “Not to keep you from getting what you want. Not even partly that I'm sick of you, sick of this house, sick of my life here. I'm sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime….. Why should I give you the money? To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend? You wreck the town, you and your brothers, you wreck the town and live on it. Not me. Maybe it's easy for the dying to be honest. But it's not my fault I'm dying. I'll do no more harm now. I've done enough. I'll die my own way. And I'll do it without making the world any worse. I leave that to you.”

Their daughter Alexandra, also called Zan, is played by the young actress who helped make last year’s Arcadia so memorable, Caitlin Cohn.  She renders Zan as an innocent idealist, yet one striving to discover her own individuality, learning the shocking truth about her family which is rotten to the core.  She has a joyful relationship with her Aunt Birdie and worships her father. At the end Hellman seems to point to Zan as having the options which Birdie and Regina did not: escaping the family altogether, a statement of female empowerment.

Avery Sommers, Patric Robinson
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Also representing “goodness” are the two house servants, Avery Sommers playing Addie, who is Zan’s nanny and Patric Robinson as Cal.  Cal and Addie articulate a folk wisdom throughout the play like a Greek chorus.  They have borne witness to the exploitation around them, and are victims of the Hubbard’s dismissiveness.  In spite of that, both Sommers and Robinson play their parts with an elevated dignity and supply some of the much needed humor in the play. Sommers’ facial expressions reveal her character’s knowledge of the family flaws and the basic humanity of Horace, Birdie, and Zan. There is love there in a basically loveless play.

Clearly it was J. Barry Lewis’ vision to present the play with a high degree of realism, Even though the play is in three acts with two brief intermissions, time flies as we witness the winding and unwinding of the plot, a real-life story in another time but it could be our own. 

Costumes along with scenic design also help make this production stand out.  Michael Amico’s set is stately and is in neutral colors, making the best of Dramaworks’ shallow but wide stage.  This becomes a perfect palette for Brian O'Keefe’s costume designs, supplying the color of the production. Those follow the changes in this character-driven play.  Regina’s in particular are striking, at times suggesting a seductress, a femme fatale, and of course, as her name implies, regal.  Birdie’s are designed to make her look refined, a southern belle, and as her name implies, flighty.  Zan’s bespeaks innocence and virtuousness.  It is interesting to see some of O’Keefe’s artistic renderings before a stitch is sewn:

Kathy McCafferty sees her last costume as a “feminine suit of armor.”

Paul Black’s lighting design had to work with “windows” that allows daylight to come from the audience’s side of the stage.  The lighting of the lively first act is dramatically different from the high drama of the final scene. Brad Pawlak’s sound design sets up moods mostly at the beginning and end of scenes, tapping into classical pieces by Amy Beach, a pioneering American female composer of that era.

It is not surprising that the play ends sadly, but acceptance and hopefulness are also in the mix.   Dramaworks wisely leaves it open to the audience to interpret the “winners” in this unforgettable production. 

Cast Party Opening Night