If your last name is an adjective, people are bound to have some fun on your behalf. For Thornton Wilder, at least, the puns are well-earned. Two of his best known plays — the quiet confidences of Our Town and the rambunctious time-warp that is The Skin Of Our Teeth — are wilder works indeed, stretching our understanding of what can happen onstage.
Although those two plays both earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — in 1938 and 1943, respectively — Wilder also penned quite a few shorter works for the stage. Washington Stage Guild has now turned four of them, each based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, into a two-act evening of stories. But despite their namesake’s reputation for pushing the envelope, Wilder Sins turns out to be less than remarkable.
The production, directed in a seeming bout of dispassion by Artistic Director Bill Largess, never succeeds in taking these four parlor fables at more than face value. The disturbing truths beneath the surface remain, sadly, undisturbed themselves.
Largess has done a tidy and intelligent job of interlacing Wilder’s works. The five actors in the cast, diverse in age, each move through several roles throughout the piece with suitable ease, donning new costumes and freshened faces with every new scene.
What’s missing, however, goes deeper than the clean mechanics and the crisp veneer. On Wilder’s pages, these four plays — which ruminate on the nature of Wrath, Pride, Sloth, and Avarice — are saturated with small, unspoken struggles. Each little moment demands meticulous attention in performance — a discipline not displayed here. Clean staging may carry us across Wilder’s sea of stories, but it can’t pull us down into it.
For all the evils, big and small, perpetrated in these stories, the Devil goes unseen. That’s because, as usual, he’s in the details. Wilder’s trick, as he explores human sin, lies in the amount of un-judged curiosity — and generosity — he affords his characters. So, in a cat-and-mouse game played out between a wily matron (Jewell Robinson) and a young suitor with secrets to keep (Billy Finn), the blame doesn’t fall so easily. Later, when actor John Dow plays a businessman weeping for his immoral dealings, we hesitate to condemn. When a white-collar family man (Peter J. Mendez) comes into some accidental riches, his troublesome thoughts about his family don’t ever fully resolve. And when a young woman (Madeline Ruskin) has misgivings about her stingy fiancee, we relate to her acts of mischief even as we try to dismiss them.
Subtlety is not beyond this cast. Everyone shows moments of touching sincerity. Mendez and Dow, in particular, do good work at cradling the inner, unspoken lives of the characters they play. For broad stretches of the evening, though, subtext doesn’t factor into the proceedings. The scenes — often far too slow, with expansive gaps between line cues — run in single-gear, playing dialogue for the words on the page and gliding over the rougher, darker ways that the characters are meant to suppress, fret over, and come to terms with their uglier sides.
The audience is not aided by the fact that, on top of this, several of the performances are simply perplexing, none more so than Robinson’s turns as three middle-aged women who should come off — in all three cases — as nearly 20 years younger than she does. Robinson, who is both a company member and a board member at Washington Stage Guild, displays some fundamental endurance, but doesn’t rise to the challenge. Her difficulty on Saturday night in remembering her lines, and the slowed pace at which she arrived at them, do the sluggish scenes no services.
Without a deeper connection to the emotional grit of these stories, the results border on soporific. Heated conversations that should speed up, slow down, and swerves into surprise are here given the broad treatment, played with unchanging rhythm and flattened, almost drowsy, bluntness. The troubled men and women in these tales should be trying to outrun their sins, but the ambling here doesn’t make for much of a chase.
Washington Stage Guild presents the other three “sin” plays — exploring Gluttony, Lust, and Envy — in a special staged reading on November 14. It’ll be interesting to hear the additional chapters of this seven-part project in a slightly different context. It may turn out that this sort of stripped-down, more focused sharing of Wilder’s words proves, even among seated actors, to be more moving.
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Bill Largess
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission