DF on the Problem with Family Drama

Mary Stuart Masterson, Linda Hunt, Frances McDormand -- peas in a pod?

Mary Stuart Masterson, Linda Hunt, Frances McDormand — Three… Sisters??

Family relationships are an essential theme in modern drama. Yet, in my 45-plus years of theatre-going, I can hardly remember a production where I believed a cast were actually a family. Sometimes they scarcely seem part of the same world.

You might think I’m talking about physical resemblance, and in part, I am. It helps an audience if there’s some visual similarity among a family group, though obviously that’s likelier with real family members. (In British theatre, for a time, various assembled Redgraves offered a good solution – though in Lady Windermere’s Fan, the talent gulf between Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, playing mother and daughter, was so vast it created a different kind of credibility problem.)

What I really mean is something deeper – shared mannerisms, vocal inflections, and behaviour patterns that reinforce the connected roots of a group of characters.

Creating this is something directors and actors can achieve, but again – in my experience, it rarely happens. (You see the same problem in film and TV, I think. A very insightful friend and theatre colleague recently commented that in Rectify – a show we both like a lot – Abigail Spencer is in every way different from the rest of her family.) Often when I see family plays, I come away convinced there wasn’t even an attempt to work on this in rehearsal.

I’ve seen Chekhov plays where the lack of any family sense borders on comical. Take (please!) Mike Nichols’ The Seagull at the Delacorte – to accept Meryl Streep (gorgeous, soignée, looking 50-ish) as the mother of Philip Seymour Hoffman (disheveled, “street,” like a 60-year-old refugee from Alphabet City) would also require believing that God has a very campy sense of humor.

Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman -- like mother, like... son??

Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman — like mother, like… son??

Still, this was more plausible than Emily Mann’s Three Sisters at McCarter, who were (from youngest to oldest), Mary Stuart Masterson, Frances McDormand, and (wait for it)… Linda Hunt.

Hunt’s small stature was one issue – Masterson and McDormand were a head taller, and very similar in height to each other. But it was only the beginning.

In Mann’s show, the audience was asked to accept an Olga who was 20 (and looked 30) years older than Irina; she also had an entirely different accent (mid-Atlantic to the point of sounding British) and vocal quality, as well as a different physicality and general sense of style. Hunt was far more “period” than either of the others, who seemed contemporary. (What nobody seemed was Russian.)

This is frequently a problem in Chekhov productions because alongside the important plot points that revolve around family relationships, we also have a theatrical world where every role is a kind of “star” part – which, in practice, leads to assembling a parade of celebrities who have no business being together on a stage. There are many examples to illustrate how problematic this is. Nichols’ Seagull was, in my experience, the reductio ad absurdum – Starfucker Chekhov, as I’ve categorized it ever since.

But we see it also in productions of American plays.

In John Tiffany’s much-lauded Glass Menagerie, two out of three examples of family casting worked well. Cherry Jones, a fine, plausibly Southern Amanda, also seemed physically and temperamentally well-matched to Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played Laura, her daughter.

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger -- two-thirds of a plausible family

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger — two-thirds of a believable family?

The sore thumb here was Zachary Quinto. Playing Tom – Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother – Quinto looked and acted like neither of them. He’s physically swarthy, and far more contemporary in manner. (It exacerbated the problem that Brian J. Smith, who played Jim – the only actual outsider in this play – seemed much more likely in every way to be related to the women.) In scene after scene, Quinto looked like he’d wandered into the wrong apartment.

At this point, you may be wondering  – as I was, when the play began – if, perhaps, casting someone so different was deliberate. Tom, the doppelganger for the playwright, feels trapped in his own home. He’s the family’s outlier, and even within the structure of Glass Menagerie, in his function as narrator, Tom exists outside its frame.

But it doesn’t work. Tom’s tragedy is that he’s able to escape the family in a physical sense – but he’s bound eternally by his connections to it. The audience needs to see both sides.

So, there it is – a problem likely without a solution. I had hoped to conclude this essay with an example of a theatre ensemble cast that I really believed passed as relatives – but I couldn’t come up with one.

Instead, I’ll throw the question to you – have you seen a cast of actors who convinced you they were a family? (Or do you have an experience of an onstage family that made no sense?)

Categories: Criticism, General Ramblings, Theater

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4 replies »

  1. It’s even worse when films are made of Jewish-themed plays. Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey as Brooklyn Jews? PUH-LEASE! I once had the chance to ask Neil Simon how he had felt about that casting, and said he was NOT happy with it.

  2. Ponder the various Heidi Hollands over the years, standing in for Wendy Wasserstein: Joan Allen, Brooke Adams ( who MAY be partly Jewish), Christine Lahti, Mary McDonnell and Elisabeth Moss. WTF?

    My least probably related Prozorov siblings were in a famous but VERY patchy production at BAM in my remote high school days:

    Rosemary Harris
    Ellen Burstyn [sounding like a Kansas farmwife]
    Tovah Feldshuh

    • Brooke Adams isn’t of part Jewish descent.

      Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

      Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

      Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, Ryan Potter.

      Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

      Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

      Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  3. Now THAT’s my idea of three sisters: Judith Bliss, Aunt Eller, and Golda Meir.

    Re: Tovah Feldschuh — even in this early stage of her career, surely she — like another Irina, Phoebe Cates — was by nature more one of God’s Natashas?…

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