Night Seasons is forty years in the history of the unpleasant Weems family, reduced to two hours, more or less. Notwithstanding this compression, the two hours traffic of our stage seems longer, extended by playwright Horton Foote’s somnambulistic pacing, and further accentuated by the Quotidian cast’s generally hesitant delivery.
Plus, there is singing.
Some of the Weems are drunks and gamblers — particularly Mercer (Grant Cloyd) and Lawrence, who does not appear on stage — and most of the rest sit in judgment of them. Chief judge is matriarch Josie Weems (Jane Squier Bruns), who as the play opens (in 1963) is about to celebrate her ninety-third birthday.
Notwithstanding the ministrations of her nurse (Debbie Minter Jackson) and her remaining children, Thurman (David Debov), a banker, and Skeeter (Bill Brekke), a rice farmer, she catapults herself forty years into the past, when her husband Lewis (John Decker) and daughter Laura Lee (Carolyn Kasher) were still alive.
Those were bad days. Her niece Dolly (Elizabeth Darby) is married to Mercer, who has dissipated his estate through gambling, and is too frequently sauced to hold steady employment. Son Thurman is married to the termagant Delia (Laura Russell); their fierce arguments supply what energy this play has. Niece Rosa (Jennifer Osborn), whose principal attribute appears to be her ability to sing at funerals, seems depressed throughout the play, while Laura Lee, who seems feisty and intelligent, nonetheless puts her plans to buy her own home on hold for thirty years. And Josie, reigning over all, manages through manipulation to secure the household she wants: herself, husband Lewis (John Decker) and Laura Lee, holed up in a hotel room.
Thus Night Seasons resembles an older, better, and more purposeful play: Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Like Amanda Wingfield, Josie Weems achieves her objectives through the strategic application of weakness. Like Laura, Laura Lee loses her beaux to other women through slow courting and lack of assertiveness. The specifics are different but the point is the same.
But Foote’s play is much more complicated and diffuse than Williams’. Josie presides over a household which includes three children, two nieces and various spouses, most of whom need, in her view, both her guidance and her money. Laura Lee loses not one beau but two — Mr. Chestnut, who is driven away when the Weems demand that he give up his dreams of owning a bakery and work at a bank as the price of marrying Laura Lee, and Mr. Barsoty (Timothy Ziese), who finally walks out after being refused one too many times.
closes August 13, 2017
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But more, and worse: Night Seasons is littered with gossip about characters we never meet, or care about. They go over at length the fate of Dolly’s brother Lawrence and his wife Annie — and even his mother-in-law — none of whom ever appear on stage. Moreover, Foote’s exposition is artless; for example, he has Mercer tell Laura Lee that “it’s good to have a son after three daughters” — as though Dolly’s beloved cousin, a frequent visitor, would not know the gender of their children.
This is a slow play, and it is made slower by the actors’ delivery. In an excellent show, the actors come in hard on each other’s lines, as though they are giving voice to heartfelt and spontaneous emotions. Here, the actors pause before their lines — not always, but frequently enough to remind us that we are in a play, instead of watching real life. I specifically exempt Decker and Russell from this criticism; indeed, Russell’s duels with Dubov, along with Stephanie Mumford’s fabulous costumes, are the best parts of the play.
When an excellent cast — Bruns is a superb actor, and I have seen Dubov and Kashner, as well as Decker, do wonderful work in the past — falls prey to such difficulties, the fault almost always lies with the director. Jack Sbarboni is an acknowledged expert on Foote, but this play shows a significant lack of attention. For example, in a scene late in the play, Doris (identified in the program as a “practical nurse”) observes a character seemingly expire. Does Doris shake the character? Does she take a pulse? Does she try to slap the character to wakefulness? No, she simply commends the character’s spirit up to heaven.
Worst of all, though, is the decision to interrupt the action with snippets of morose songs and hymns, generally sung by Zeise, Osborn and occasionally Kashner. They appear behind a scrim, and interrupt dialogue to vocalize. In those moments, the onstage cast sits, motionless, as the music wafts over the audience. Notwithstanding the good voices, I grew to anticipate these moments with dread, as they did violence to the story, and made it more difficult to remember the complicated relationships and emotions once the story resumed.
In short, Night Seasons is a bad use of a good cast; a diffuse, melancholy account of what is ultimately an unattractive family. The cast, by and large, has not caught up to the dialogue (although that may change later in the run), and the direction is less than we have come to expect from Jack Sbarboni. There is merit to the story, as there is in all Horton Foote stories, but it is not manifest here.
Night Seasons by Horton Foote, directed by Jack Sbarboni, who was also responsible for the set design . Featuring Jane Squier Bruns, John Decker, David Dubov, Carolyn Kashner, Bill Brekke, Elizabeth Darby, Laura Russell, Jennnifer Osborn, Debbie Minter Jackson, Grant Cloyd, and Timothy Ziese . Lighting design: Don Slater . Costume design: Stephanie Mumford . Lighting and sound technician: Matthew Datcher . Music director: Valerie Higgs . Stage manager: E. Lynda Bruce . Produced by Quotidian Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
NOTE: Debbie Minter Jackson is a colleague of mine at DCTS. Carolyn Kasher played a role in my Fringe 2014 production, “Dracula. A Love Story.” None of this influenced my review.