Not to be confused with Jane Bowles’ 1954 play “In The Summer House,” this first play by Amber Kain has a lot going for it, as it also heralds the arrival of a bright new writing talent. Interestingly for those who remember the former play, Kain’s play also deals in part with a conspicuously unnerved mother trying to cope with an introspective and rebellious daughter. In Kain’s play, the mother is acutely aware of a daughter’s unhealthy attachment to her father. Although psychoanalysts have thrown up their hands trying to explain Bowles’ more illusive play, they should have no trouble deciphering the psychological causes and personality permutations that serve to engine Kain’s take on misguided parental attention. Although “The Summer House” takes a rather straight and even predictable path toward its resolution, it is the sudden twists in the characters’ motivations that keep us involved.
Kennedy Sommers (Krystel Lucas) is a pretty, aspiring 27-year-old graphic artist who has focused on writing “mangas.” Moderately introverted, she still lives with her well-to-do parents in a swank upper East Side apartment. Currently her attention is primarily fixed on marrying Chip Saunders (Scott Price), a young man she met in an internet chat room. They have known each other now for 18 months. Chip is white and Kennedy’s family is black, so guess who’s been invited for dinner, well, invited to go out with Kennedy and her parents, Bill (Gerard Catus) and Sandy (Marie Thomas), to a restaurant? Back at their apartment, Chip, relaxed, personable, and eagerly conciliatory to his fiancee, reveals to Bill and Sandy that he grew up in foster care in Hanover, New Hampshire. A former marine, he has plans to start a business selling outdoor recreation equipment. Does anyone believe him? And doesn’t anyone notice Kennedy’s fleeting and inconsistent affection for Chip?
With measured civility and humor, Bill and Sandy appear to be strangely receptive to Kennedy and Chip’s impulsive plan to marry. The black and white factor is not the issue, but rather whether Bill and Sandy will go along with Kennedy’s suggestion that her parents join them on their honeymoon at the family’s upstate country home. The balance of the play takes place at the summer house following the wedding, where a psychological mystery unfolds involving an apparent suicide by a young girl, a haunted greenhouse, the unmasking of a con artist cum identity thief, the dangers of filial obsession, a mother’s infidelity, and an attempted murder. That these all serve to expose deeply suppressed truths is only the half of it, as they also serve as an unlikely catalyst for Sandy’s belated singing career. All a bit melodramatic, but the play narrowly misses being pure hokum.
Under the quality control of director Jade King Carroll, the play is well acted. A burly actor, Catus is quite fine as Bill, whose intense bond with his daughter has unwittingly created an insurmountable emotional wall between him and Sandy. Thomas is terrific as the still attractive, always smartly attired Sandy, who ultimately finds that she cannot compete with the relationship that has developed incrementally over the years between Bill and daughter Kennedy. An insightful scene late in the play finds Sandy singing the blues with sultry aplomb. Lucas makes a good if pathetic case for the emotionally damaged Kennedy, who is prone to unexplained seizures and an inscrutable resistance to her fiancee’s attention. Price is right (no pun intended) on as Chip, whose fate would appear to be sealed almost from the minute he walks into the Sommers’ lives.
The dialogue throughout is crisp with the acerbic Sandy getting the best lines, or at least Thomas is resourceful enough to make every bon mot or line count and get a laugh on such asides as these. (“Kennedy is going to put our family on the map (pause) as soon as she finishes something” and “We’ve got a handful of country homes and a little hedge fund”). Although handsome enough in its simplicity, the set design by Lara Fabian forces an extra intermission (that’s two intermissions) on the play, the first coming only 20 minutes from the start. Surely the moveable parts of the skeletal set and the changing of a slip cover on one sofa could be executed with more fluidity. Dennis Parichy’s expert lighting and Karen Perry’s haute couture fashions, particularly Kennedy’s white ballerina-style wedding dress, are a plus. “The Summer House” is neatly calculated to be both mystifying and satisfying.
“The Summer House,” through Sunday, November 23, Passage Theatre, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. $25 to $30. 609-392-0766.