Drama “I Never Sang for My Father” opens tonight at Winneshiek Playhouse as the last production of its 90th season. The community theatre of Freeport, that is, the oldest continuous amateur theatre in the nation has successfully presented recent plays, “Forever Plaid,” “Saving Grace,” and “Dearly Departed.”
“I Never Sang for My Father,” was written by Robert Anderson and awarded Writer’s Guild of America in 1970. His many other plays including “Silent Night, Lonely Night,” “Tea and Sympathy” and “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” focus on the immediate family with a special attention to loneliness where people closely related seem to build walls around themselves.
Directed at WP by Tom Myers, the play rose high and mighty from the script to the fullest extent of its potential. Myers admits that his favorite labor of love in the theatre is to dig deeply into psychological exchanges between actors that tell a powerful story. The results are clearly his forte when you realize that not only is the action of the story relevant, there’s an invisible force that seems to sneak a parallel energy where catharsis seems to reach every family, everywhere.
Myers is no stranger, of course, to the action. Retired from Highland Community College as Dean of Humanities/Social Sciences, he draws upon a lengthy background of acting and directing.
This play centers around an aging father Tom Garrison whom at first impression is a stubborn elderly curmudgeon, mad at life, mad at everyone around him. He has anger about his past, present and future, holding the rest of the family hostage to his ill-tempered rants. As the story unfolds, you realize that his stubbornness runs deeper into an abusive streak, especially toward his grown children.
Justin Pasch has all it takes for the role. He is an imposing figure that personifies a thundering disposition as his tirades become more explosive scene by scene. Most effective about his bullying is a long accusatory index finger that seems to point daggers through his victims. Pasch takes on these roles well having performed strongly as Lee in “True West” last season.
The main victim of the father’s verbal abuse and long index finger is grown son Gene played by Douglas Rappa. It’s a father/son standoff where neither has lived up to the other’s expectations. The resulting lifelong estrangement runs deep when the father is emotionally unavailable and the son doesn’t come up to the father’s standards.
Rappa achieves this well as he walks a fine line between standing up for himself, yet vulnerable, desperately needing acceptance from his father. He also draws from a rich theatre background in Northern Illinois including WP’s “Saving Grace,” and roles Cowardly Lion and Ebenezer Scrooge.
The mother Margaret cannot escape the wrath of the father, either. Dawn Degenhardt takes on the worrywart role quite naturally as she waves off family dysfunctions with arthritic energy. She is a convincing maternal influence, providing son Gene with an emotional lifelong bond. She slips in and out of WP roles with ease including an hysterical Marguerite in “Dearly Departed.”
Gene has a sister Alice also, equally estranged by the father but having a healthier, “good riddance” attitude. Tana Gundry takes the role and has an extraordinary gift of natural vocal rhythms that take you in and wring you out, passion and all. Gundry has done much work at WP including direction of “True West,” and roles in “Rabbit Hole” and “The Vagina Monologues.” But, alas, she moves on to Florida where there will be other stages and other roles. She will be missed at WP, for sure.
Elsewhere in the cast, there’s always a doctor (Jamie Ertmer), a nurse (Mary Bridgeland) and a reverend (Sam Wool ), not to mention the sour-faced funeral director Marvin Scott (Craig Downing) and all-around Mary (Barb Clemmons).
Set designer Jeff Stultz wears several hats in this production including a minor part as Porter. Most importantly, his set design appears like the Home-Sweet-Home image of normal families without the fly on the wall to see what really goes on. Using the full width of the stage for small scenes in pools of light are effective for movement of time and events.
Come see why director Myers says that the playwright could have taken a different path, “but then it wouldn’t be reality.” A gem of real life and worth a good look, “I Never Sang for My Father” opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. and runs tomorrow June 25, 30, July 1, and 2., all evenings. Tickets available at box office (815) 232-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.winneshiekplayers.org.