A war hero returns to his hometown after 17 years with a new wife with hopes for a new life. Yet the scandalous circumstances of his departure and long-standing regrets challenge his plans in Alan Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome, a well-acted and intriguingly crafted play at 1st Stage.
Alan Ayckbourn is generally considered among the greatest living playwrights. This is his 79th play, first produced three years ago and receiving its regional premiere at 1st Stage. Many of his works explore the lack of honesty in friendships and relationships, and the quiet suffering that often results.
Hero’s Welcome begins with Murray (Nick DePinto) being interviewed on television accompanied by his foreign bride with halting English skills.
Murray used to be part of a triangle of friends with his best mate Brad (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) and a woman they both sought, Alice (Lisa Hodsoll). The relationship of those earlier days, the circumstances of Murray’s departure, and the lingering resentments are slowly revealed during a lengthy first act.
Helping puncture the surface deceptions of the situation is Murray’s wife, (Angeleaza Anderson), whose multisyllabic name gets conveniently shortened to Baba. Despite Murray’s protestations, she astutely concludes “I think they do not love you.”
Indeed, Alice has evolved from chambermaid to Mayor of the small town. She opposes Murray’s plan to renovate a hotel his family once owned, both for commercial and civic reasons and because of the bitterness she still feels towards him. In the wake of Murray’s departure, she settled for a simple, honest man Derek (James J. Johnson), who is good-natured to a fault and who takes inordinate joy in his model trains.
Brad, the wealthy landowner, is a competitive alpha male. His main hobby is skeet shooting. He has managed to chase off most friends as a result of jealousy towards any attention shown his wife Kara (Anne Bowles), who is outfitted in the tight dresses we suspect Brad favors, or through Brad’s pursuit of their wives. Kara is a good-hearted soul who puts up with Brad’s constant belittling insults and is eager to befriend Baba.
The unstable relationships between the couples is exemplified by Kathryn Kawecki’s set, an inverted triangle showing the homes of all three. In the foreground is a beautiful living room of the landed gentry of Brad and Kara, with a kitchen in one rear corner representing the functional relationship of Alice and Derek. The other corner has the bedroom of Murray and Baba, a honeymoon relationship still kept warm by the mutual attraction that Brad dismisses as a “smokescreen” that will soon fade.
Although the play has a well-stuffed plot, it feels primarily a character-driven piece. Director Alex Levy gives his talented cast lots of room to develop and display their individual quirks and characteristics.
Ayckbourn’s sympathy for the women in Hero’s Welcome is apparent. Both Kara and Alice are trapped in unhappy marriages, although for vary different reasons. Anne Bowles is a sympathetic and affecting Kara, who starts to become more self-aware of her plight. The role of Alice gives Lisa Hodsoll less room to grow, staying a tough woman hardened by her resentments.
closes September 30, 2018
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Baba is the real highlight of the play, especially given Angeleaza Anderson’s delightfully nuanced performance. She is a noble innocent at first, but gradually demonstrates an ambition and plucky strength that gives the play a welcome touch of optimism.
The men expertly fill their distinct roles. Nick DePinto gives Murray an “aw, shucks” charm, but with hints of underlying conflict. Clayton Pelham, Jr. gives Brad a predatory charm and brutal menace that spikes due to Murray’s return. James J. Johnson gives a memorable supporting performance as he makes Derek’s simple, decent character both funny and intriguing.
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Earlier Ayckbourn plays often featured comic humor verging on farce. Yet while this play draws on situational humor and has fun with Baba’s struggles with the English language, it is a mature and thoughtful work.
Hero’s Welcome takes a look at the rivalries and resentments that so often linger in relationships. While at times the plotting is predictable, the well-acted character dynamics and humor sustain the audience through a lengthy play. The 1st Stage production of Hero’s Welcome is ultimately a tale of human resilience with a sentimental ending that will please Ayckbourn fans and newcomers alike.
Hero’s Welcome by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Alex Levy. Featuring Angeleaza Anderson, Anne Bowles, Nick DePinto, Lisa Hodsoll, James J. Johnson, and Clayton Pelham, Jr. Set Design: Kathryn Kawecki. Costume Design: Danielle Preston. Lighting Design: Robbie Hayes. Sound Design: Reid May. Props Design: Cindy Landrum Jacobs. Dialect Coach: Jane Margulies Kalbfeld. Rehearsal Stage Manager: Rebecca Talisman. Performance Stage Manager: Sarah Kate Patterson. Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.