Saturday, November 10, 2018

Review of "Thousand Pines"


The focus of the world premiere of Thousand Pines, playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through November 17th, is a shooting at a Junior High School.  This powerful and, at times, emotionally gripping production will resonate deeply with all audience members, and especially Connecticut residents who remember the carnage at Sandy Hook.
 
  1. L-R:  William Ragsdale, Katie Ailion, Joby Earle, Andrew Veenstra, Kelly McAndrew, and Anne Bates in “Thousand Pines,” written by Matthew Greene, directed by Austin Pendleton, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through November 17.  Photo by Carol Rosegg
Playwright Matthew Greene has crafted three vignettes that center on the life-changing episode.  Each scene takes place in the suburban neighborhood surrounding the school during Thanksgiving and approaches the consequences from a different angle.  The setting, a dining area outside the kitchen, is the same for each portion of the show.  Five of the six performers change roles during the trio of scenarios.

The first account revolves around a mother as she and other family members help her prepare for the holiday meal.  We quickly learn that her dispassionate, false fa├žade is a coping mechanism as she cannot face up to the magnitude of the tragic event.  Her son, tormented by an unknown guilt clashes with his mother as the surreal nature of the aftermath becomes too much for him to take.
 
  1. L-R: Joby Earle, Andrew Veenstra, and Kelly McAndrew in “Thousand Pines,” written by Matthew Greene, directed by Austin Pendleton, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through November 17.   Photo by Carol Rosegg
In the next story, litigation is the primary element as a lawyer and his ex-wife seek to coax a plaintiff-friendly deposition from a witness to the shooting.  As the details begin to unfold a shocking aspect of the event is revealed.

The final glimpse into a grieving household, once again, has a mother center stage.  As neighbors try to cheer her up and redirect her attention more information behind the shooting is disclosed.  Then, in a blink of an eye, the three seemingly unconnected vignettes coalesce into a more coherent, yet stunning, whole.

Greene has written a compelling and haunting work that does not produce any easy answers.   He presents information, sometimes delivered in a stark and detached manner, that offers insights, but nothing definitive is resolved.  Questions of blame and correct protocols are left for audience member to decide.  He rightfully focuses attention on how individuals react differently and are impacted by such an event.  The results can be devastatingly raw and absolutely heartbreaking.  Some of the characters are not fully realized or deeply drawn, which is usually an issue for such short shows.  The intermission-less production runs only 79 minutes.
 
  1. L-R: Andrew Veenstra, Kelly McAndrew and Katie Ailion  in “Thousand Pines,” written by Matthew Greene, directed by Austin Pendleton, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through November 17.   Photo by Carol Rosegg
The six person actors – Katie Ailion, Anne Bates, Joby Earle, Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, and Andrew Veenstra – play multiple roles within the three presentation and three of them standout.  Their characters are more fully developed, which allows for more nuance and shading in their portrayals.  Kelly McAndrew has the most difficult job as she embodies three different matriarchs, all at different points of the grieving process.  Anne Bates is a supporting player in two of the three scenes.  In the middle piece, however, she delivers a chilling monologue that is agonizing in its moral implications.  Andrew Veenstra, the only actor who plays the same character throughout the production, is a shattered mess as he tries to comprehend the horrific event that took place months earlier.

Director Austin Pendleton skillfully resets each tableau with precision and care.  He perceptually incorporates a good deal of quietude and reflection among the shattered family members.  Pendleton also brings a natural, sometimes infuriating, flow to the show.  Infuriating because of the wild mood swings rendered by the characters, but natural because of the honest and genuine feelings they display on stage.

Thousand Pines, a gripping and sometimes difficult piece of theater that, nonetheless, demands to be seen.

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