Associate Connecticut Critic
Watching Matthew Greene’s triptych “Thousand Pines” is like sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast – the kind made up of individual, familiar parts you already like, the kind that takes center stage in Walt Spangler’s homey set – only to find a few side dishes that, while tasty, don’t nearly fill you up. It’s a frustratingly fuzzy experience, especially since there’s such a compelling story so close to the surface. But more often than not, Greene’s work is well-meaning but rushed, overstuffed and undernourished.
“Thousand Pines,” which is making its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse, is a story about grief. Actually, it’s three stories told in 25-minute vignettes with the same six actors playing different roles in each. All the scenes take place during the same Thanksgiving Day in three identical suburban homes not long after a school shooting that left numerous children dead. First, we meet the Fosters. Young Adult Son walks into his house for the first time in months only to find his mother cheerfully cooking with all the pep of an over-caffeinated Martha Stewart. She clearly hasn’t dealt with the loss of her younger son who perished at Thousand Pines Elementary. She also doesn’t know that Young Adult Son’s Fiancé, who is helping with the food prep, has messily split from her son. She also doesn’t know why her brother-in-law returned from the grocery with a black eye along with the requested butter. Tempers flare and family secrets are exposed, all while mother and son butt heads in a nifty bit of role reversal – it is the son urging his mother to face the reality of her loss.
In the second and most emotionally engaging segment, we move down the street to visit the Kane family. Mom has invited her ex-husband to dinner because he’s representing the family in a lawsuit, one that claims their son’s death was due to negligent policies by the school system. But the case isn’t going well, putting strain on Mom, her new husband, their adult daughter and the ex-husband, whose boss keeps calling with updates so that the playwright can feed us exposition. Conveniently, the boss is a Jehovah’s Witness and doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Tempers flare and family secrets are exposed when a schoolteacher from Thousand Pines visits with a first-hand account of the traumatic attack.
In the third scene with the Garrisons, Mom’s Brother comes to the house in handcuffs after punching someone in the grocery store. Mom refuses to put away her deceased son’s belongings and has been numbly floating through life since the shooting. Tempers flare and family secrets are exposed when a character we’ve met before in a different household knocks on the door.
Each of these premises has promise and there’s an entirely successful play that could be mined by culling all the best parts into one fully coherent narrative. But instead of showing us the universality of grief through three similar stories, we’re left with incomplete one-acts that don’t come together. There’s not enough time to build complex characters, not enough backstory to connect you to these people and not enough resolution. They are sketches, rather than paintings.
The work Matthew Greene is trying to do here is admirable. The topicality of the story is a fascinating jumping-off point for a play and the subject matter is handled respectfully. Despite the set-up, “Thousand Pines” never wades into political argument or talk of gun control. That works, because it’s not really a play about a school shooting. It’s a look at the way people refuse to handle loss and the toll it takes on the entire family. His script also smartly shies away from any clear-cut answers. These are damaged souls searching in vain to find any meaning in the scattered shells that are their lives. In one of the play’s most moving moments, Mama Kane shouts into the phone, screaming to her lawyer that “there has to be someone to blame” for the shooting. Of course, there isn’t.
But even that moment doesn’t fully land because there’s not enough room around it. There are glimpses of other great works here – the themes of “Rabbit Hole,” the family drama of “August: Osage County” and even a little “Next To Normal” – but Greene doesn’t yet have Lindsay-Abaire’s skill of quickly drawing such well-rounded, intricate characters or Lett’s knack for artfully unspooling complicated family drama with panache and naturalistic ease.
Despite given thin material, the cast is wonderful and work their hardest to create fleshed-out characters. Kelly McAndrews completely transforms herself, playing all three mothers with nuance and heart. So does Andrew Veenstra and Katie Ailion, as variations on the sole surviving sibling, and Joby Earle and William Ragsdale as various other family members. The performances are also well-orchestrated by director Austin Pendleton, whose blocking is swift but unobtrusive. The play’s best moment, though, comes courtesy of Anne Bates. In the second segment, she delivers a tremendously moving monologue about her experience as a teacher during the shooting and a horrific choice she was forced to make.
In an evening of blurry family scenes, her monologue makes the stage come into crystal clear focus; a perfectly acted, beautifully written and thought-provoking moment with no easy moralizing. It shows so much promise. It shows what the play could become with some rewriting, editing and expanding. When it comes to “Thousand Pines,” all the raw ingredients are there, they just need a better recipe.
“Thousand Pines” runs until November 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse. It is written by Matthew Greene and directed by Austin Pendleton. Starring: Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, Anne Bates, Joby Earle, Katie Ailion and Andrew Veenstra. The production team include: Walt Spangler (set design), Barbara A. Bell (costume design), Xavier Pierce (lighting design) and Ryan Rumery (sound design & composer). Photos by Carol Rosegg.