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.
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.
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?)