On Stage: Stuck in the Suburbs

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Signature explores all-too familiar story in ‘Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill’

From left: Anthony Bowden, Wayne Duvall, Christopher McFarland and Christine Lahti. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

From left: Anthony Bowden, Wayne Duvall, Christopher McFarland and Christine Lahti. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

What are four superb actors, giving brilliant performances, and a legendary, talented director doing in a play like this: “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” now playing at the Signature Theatre? Sarcasm is not intended, but they are wasted on Paul Downs Colaizzo’s play, directed by Michael Kahn, with a cast led by the accomplished actress, Christine Lahti.

Another question is why a director of Kahn’s stature would select “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” as the first piece he has directed at Signature in 20 years. Kahn, who has been the esteemed artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, recently directed a powerful version of “Torch Song Trilogy” at Studio Theatre. It was also the first time he directed a play there and the material was worthy of his unique talents. The widely honored Kahn could probably have selected anything he wanted to direct.

“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” is making what Signature describes as a world premiere of the story of a family that is falling apart. The stay-at-home mother, the impressive Lahti, sees her comfortable suburban life crumbling: one son has announced he is gay, the other who eats too much and has two Ivy League degrees has decided he doesn’t want to be a lawyer and would rather manage a fast food franchise, and she has an indifferent husband who is generally at work and is rarely ever around.

Unfortunately, we can see where this is going and we know the end won’t be pretty. There is the nagging feeling that we have often seen some version or other of this play. There are some good lines and Kahn has established an effective pacing of the production. Lahti, a dominating presence, as Carly, is a wife and mother who has found an artificial comfort in her suburban redoubt where she has won the best flower arrangement in a neighborhood contest. She is excited that the local newsletter is coming to take her picture and wants to include the entire family.

It may not sound like much, but winning this honor is a big deal for Carly, something she can use in the local one-upmanship games that give her a superior position over her friends and neighbors. The honor may take on more importance than seems obvious since Carly, trapped in the curse of suburban living, doesn’t have much else to hold onto.

Kahn clearly understands his characters and rises above the play’s limitations, stimulating effective, smart performances from Anthony Bowden and Christopher McFarland as the two unhappy brothers who have been damaged by their dominating mother and remote father, Louie (in a powerful performance by Wayne Duvall), who comes into the performance near the end of the first act. Duvall and Lahti are dominating forces on a rapidly spiraling collision force. The interaction between these two accomplished performers is what holds this production together. They are a pleasure to watch as they move to an inevitable breakup with Carly avoiding the reality of a failed marriage.

Scenic designer James Noone has created a set that looks like the kind of middle-class kitchen and living room that might actually exist in a modest suburban home, and costume designer Frank Lobovitz has dressed the actors in the everyday kind of clothes one would also expect to see of people living at a comfortable, but modest economic level. He carefully dresses Lahti in a way that takes advantage of her tall, slender body that makes you wonder why she has allowed herself to fall into a rut she can’t dig out of with a husband who doesn’t love her anymore and two sons who have given up on her.

“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” is worth seeing to experience the work of the talented cast and sensitive direction. It is, unfortunately, another example of a production that rises above the script.

Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” continues through Dec. 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206, from $40, available at 703-820-9771 and online here.

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