Times are tough for the middle-class, blue collar Conroy family in Tremont, New Hampshire. Their sprawling farm has been in the family for generations but is now surrounded by upscale housing developments, mini-mansions and, even more worrisome to them, a new class of people. The Conroys are losing clout and prestige in the newer core community and have not had an easy time since the death of the family patriarch, a plumber killed by a lightning bolt.
It remains for the robust widow Mary Conroy (Tasha Lawrence) to try to make ends meet by working at various jobs and also by selling off 55 acres to a wealthy 68-year-old neighbor, Nora Letempkin. It seems that Letempkin (unseen) has taken Mary’s bright 16-year-old teenage daughter, Frances (Sarah Lord), under her wing and triggered her imagination with tales of her trips to foreign places, notably Bhutan. To Mary’s chagrin, she has also inspired in Frances a desire to apply for college.
Mary’s sister, Sara (Amy Redford), whom Frances calls “Aunt,” is a tough cookie and a frequent visitor to the farmhouse, where she understandably fumes and frets less about losing her job as a vet technician for giving a dog the wrong medicine than about losing her boyfriend of 15 years. It seems he simply split when she said “no” too many times.
Mary and Sara are cut from the same cloth and not above taking swipes at the upscale neighbor. They take particular joy in stealing signs that read “When Clinton lied no one died,” and “No blood for oil,” from her lawn. Frances’s one year older brother, Warren (Jedadiah Schultz), is not a scholar like his sister but a plumbing apprentice, who happens to be in love with a girl from a wealthy family. When we first see him, however, he is in jail serving a 15-year term for manslaughter.
If my assessment of the basic setup makes the play seem a bit trite and predictable, don’t be fooled. Playwright Daisy Foote has created some vivid characters, each of whom resonates with emotional honesty within a keenly observed reality. In her program bio, Foote dedicates the play “to her father and life-long inspiration — Horton Foote.” She can, based on the excellence of this play, anticipate praise enough to make her esteemed father proud. Excellently directed by Evan Yionoulis, “Bhutan” is being presented in a fully-staged production at the Cherry Lane Theater, following an encouraging workshop earlier this year. Happily the cast remains the same allowing for the actors to demonstrate the art of fine tuning as well as the rewards of ensemble acting.
Although Foote uses a playing-with-time structure for the play that seems to be au courant, it does allow for the past to feed the present and increase our empathy and understanding of the characters as they reveal more and more about themselves. The action moves between the dilapidated farmhouse kitchen and the prison visiting room. Laura Hyman’s realistic setting allows just enough space to indicate the prison visiting room. This is all expertly enhanced by Pat Dignan’s lighting and the clanging of cell doors, the work of sound designer Bart Fasbender.
Lord embodies Frances with a wistful longing that also reflects the desperation she feels at being trapped in a family situation without an escape clause. Her conflicted feelings are the result of Mrs. Letempkin’s nurturing and influence, her mother’s resentment of Mrs. Letempkin, and her brother’s dependency and constant need for her support. Lord’s petite stature is perfect for Frances’ less bombastic nature, and she certainly stands out in contrast to the other women, if for nothing else than for reading “Jude the Obscure.”
Mary is an attractive and vital woman with a no-nonsense approach to keeping control of things, and Lawrence fills the role with a vigor and a fierce sensuality that make us think that even a new man in her life would never mellow her manner. Tall, blonde, and full-figured Redford is terrific as the raucous, beer-guzzling, bitter Sara, who is not afraid of a good fight, even if it is with her sister. A knock-down, hair-pulling cat fight between them is a lulu.
Schultz is thoroughly convincing as Warren, the play’s most enigmatic character. He certainly makes us experience the torment of an all-consuming love and the despair he feels in an incarceration that is corrupting his nature. There is nothing corrupted about the New England dialects that the actors assume with aplomb. And there is nothing that pricks up our ears or alerts our interest more than to hear words coming from characters that ring true, see behavior that defines who these people are, and to follow a nicely dramatized homespun yarn to its conclusion. ***
“Bhutan,” through Saturday, December 9, Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street off of 7th Ave South. $45 and $50. 212-239-6200.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.