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Time it Was

by Ralph Hammann on July 14, 2011

Moonchildren
BY MICHAEL WELLER, DIRECTED BY KAREN ALLEN BERKSHIRE THEATRE FESTIVAL, UNICORN THEATRE, THROUGH JULY 16

Photo by Jamie Davidson

I’d wondered if Michael Weller’s classic, which is set in the school year of 1965-66 and concerns a group of college roommates about to graduate, would come across today as a dated curiosity or a timely reconsideration. Happily, it is the latter, and more, in this lovingly directed production, which marks Karen Allen’s directorial debut at the BTF. As opposed to being interred in a time capsule, under Allen’s direction the play lives and breathes with an uncanny freshness. Relevance is an oft-repeated word in the play, and this proves a relevant production.

The play takes place on the cusp of the students’ transition from relative cloistered innocence, in their warmly shambling quarters, to experience with a nation entering the chaos of social unrest and the Vietnam War. Like the astrological crab (the sign governed by the moon) who favors the nestlike security of the home, the base from where it can navigate the world, the students have created a home that has bolstered each. But their family unit, by its very nature, is about to collapse as they graduate from college. This emergence from the safety of the womb is subtly forshadowed by opening the play in a scene of extended darkness (wherein the students are apparently waiting for a cat to give birth). It isn’t until the play is over that the full impact of this initial comic scene is felt.

Swirling around the students are the events of the era that led increasingly to the loss of innocence in America, and through the very specific portrayal of their microcosm, Weller infers a broader picture of their troubled country. 1965 was the year that President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam; Timothy Leary professed the great powers of mushrooms; Bloody Sunday occurred in Selma, Alabama;  the antiwar movement gained national prominence; young men began burning draft cards and themselves; and Bob Dylan went electric.

This is not yet the time of the widespread hippie movement, and no such stereotypes popularized in “Hair” appear in Weller’s play. Indeed, “Moonchildren” is all the more fascinating for being perched at this very particular moment in time that precedes what seems to define the ’60s in popular memory. What emerges—as the students seek to define themselves, relate to the establishment, and deal with romance and death—is a meditation on how one shapes and is shaped by history.

It calls for rather deft acting that must evoke a period as specific as the court of Louis XIV, but without the stylistic guideposts, and Allen has cast a highly accomplished group of young and experienced actors to carry out the what is clearly a labor of love in which the labor is well-hidden. Their finest accomplishment may be the creation of a tightly knit ensemble in which each character has his or her solo moments, but integrates seamlessly into the fabric of the group. They also succeed handsomely at realizing the depth of Weller’s characterizations, in which blemishes are as prominent as virtues. There is no whitewashing here, and the result is a richer, more believable experience of real people struggling to do the best that they can with the personal resources that they have.

There are rare instances where a piece of business or turn of character might seem a bit forced for comic relief; but on the whole the experience is refreshingly organic. There are so many highlights that it is difficult to praise the individuals who have done such a feat of melding with the material and each other. That said, Carter Gill is the most dimensional of nerds; Aaron Costa Ganis walks an admirable line between schmuck and caustic realist; Miriam Silverman provides grounding and a few surprises; Samantha Richert justifies her character’s extravagances, and Matt R. Harrington and Joe Paulik seem spontaneously to invent their characters’ pranks. Norma Kuhling is achingly natural as a young woman torn by her lover’s inability to fully open to her, and Hale Appleman provides the play’s most emotional scenes with a wrenching truthfulness.

As outsiders to the student household, Andrew Joffe, David Wade Smith, Jeff Kent and Jesse Hinson all have lovely moments as they encounter a culture that runs very counter to theirs. And Kale Browne proves a sheer delight as the students’ long-suffering landlord, a complex character who is both charming and off-putting, but entirely real.

Excerpts from Bob Dylan songs do much to set the time and mood, while well-placed artifacts from the period draw us into John Traub’s richly evoked, monochromatic set. No color is needed here, for Allen provides it in her fluid staging and direction, which would seem to benefit greatly from the sensitivity and immediacy that she has always brought to her own acting.

What a contrast the relevance-seeking children of the moon make to today’s children of entitlement. Although it would not be written until 1968, Paul Simon’s “Bookends” kept running through my head as the play reached it’s rueful ending of goodbyes and decampments.

“Time it was, and what a time it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences . . . ”

Seems an apt summery of the experience. Then again, it is an apt summary for all such experience.