By Mark Boergers
Directed by Natalie Sallee
Produced by The Arc Theatre
Playing at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston
A Promising But Convoluted Play
A lot of “firsts” surround The Arc Theatre’s current production of The Things We Keep. For one, it’s a World Premiere production by The Arc’s Artistic Director and co-founder Mark Boergers. Then there’s the fact that it is The Arc’s first production in its new home of Evanston. And, lastly, it is Natalie Sallee’s directorial debut at The Arc, where she currently serves as the Director of New Works.
Much hope and promise surround these “firsts” for The Arc, just as they do Boergers’ play: it contains a compelling story. Regrettably, that story never coheres on the stage. Hampered by convoluted writing and poor acting choices, The Things We Keep offers a strong first act, but ultimately fails to follow through in the second.
The Things We Keep tells the story of Marie (Kristen D’Aurelio) – a locally famous artist of Buffalo, NY – and her two nephews and niece – Rob (Teddy Boone), Tom (Joe Flynn), and Evelyn (Adrienne Matzen), respectively – to whom, early in their lives, she acts as a benefactor in some capacity: she helps the brothers Rob and Tom pay for their college, and she takes Evelyn into her home like a daughter when her parents (for some reason) abandon her.
The story begins in 2003, when the three cousins are brought together again following the death of their aunt. Together, they are dismayed to discover that their once-generous aunt has left them nothing of her sizeable riches or her hoard of possessions. Yet beneath their reference to their deceased aunt as a “hag” and eccentric hermit lies a secret – the unraveling of which takes us back as far as 1968 to uncover the true reason for their once-caring aunt’s cold turn.
Act One of The Things We Keep – excepting the verbose opening monologue – shows all the promise of a story on par with Arthur Miller’s most popular dramatic tragedies: I felt the tension simmering in the subtext of the dialogue and I heard the hints of a secret whose truth would uncover the duplicity and quiet anguish of a family whose love and vitality was buried in the past. Then Act Two happens and that promise fizzles out in a confusing, passionless waltz through the past – 1968, 1978, 1968 (again), back to 2003. The venture is not unlike the cousins’ task of having to sift through Aunt Marie’s attic full of artistic knick-knacks and collages – but the metaphor’s poetic potency soon tires into triteness.
The principle problem I find with The Things We Keep, however, is not the time shifts, but rather the lack of character arcs (an irony I dare not pun upon). For, regardless of time, I could have followed a character arc quite clearly. But Sallee’s direction fails to craft any discernible arc out of the actors’ characters – least of which our protagonist apparent, Rob, played by Teddy Boone, whose impassive performance might be excused as intentional if only his intimacy with Adrienne Matzen possessed one inkling of honest sexual tension – upon which the essence of the story’s secret depends. On the other hand, Joe Flynn as Tom seems to have no textual basis for a character arc, and yet his performance easily elicits the most likability – despite the evidence that he’s probably meant to be the least sympathetic to the audience.
The fault is certainly not all Sallee’s, however, for I didn’t think Boergers’ writing probed deep enough into his characters’ motivations. I would have liked to have seen the stretches of factual exposition replaced with conflicted encounters that exposed more of the characters’ emotional complexity. For instance, I didn’t understand Evelyn’s decision to run away from home to escape the supposedly “snuffing” influence of Aunt Marie; and I never felt Marie’s principled decision regarding the disinheritance of her relatives was compellingly substantiated on the stage. These things just happen in the play, and we must take them for granted and try to piece together the deeper meaning ourselves.
The Things We Keep is a play with a lot of promise to become a great drama. But as it exists now, it offers more confusion than catharsis, making for a rather long and restless production with little pay-off. Hopefully, after a rewrite, we will get to see this play again.
Date Reviewed: 6 February 2016
Playing at the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets are $25. For tickets and information. Performances Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through February 28. Running time is 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.