by Collin McConnell · May 22, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #96 Collin McConnell looks at A Beautiful Day in November on the banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes at Dixon Place There's something really special happening at Dixon Place. Presented through The New Georges Jam on Toast Festival, playwright Kate Benson and Director Lee Sunday Evans have created a very touching, a very odd, and at times a rather frightening portrait of modern family.
"Gratitude and Gladness" "Yes Gratitude and Gladness"
That's what the holidays and family get togethers are for. Being with the ones you love, sharing in that love... and desperately trying to one-up each other.
The power of a play like A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of Greatest of the Great Lakes is in its ability to at once distance us from the action of the play, while drawing us in close to deeply empathize with all of the many characters filling up this family's home. Because at first glance, this play is about a typical Middle American family having one of any of the prescribed annual large family dinners (Thanksgiving, but it really could be anything). Except, begin to treat it like a sporting event (and not ridiculously, but in earnest - perhaps making it all the more ridiculous) and somehow something shifts - the individuals become, somehow, almost uncomfortably, alive. And so the upper-middle generation prepares to host dinner as the rest of the family (the patriarch and matriarch, the sisters[-in-law] and brothers[-in-law], their children, and their children (lovingly referred to in the playbill as "a hoard of uncountable babies") arrives and assists (sort of), until it becomes a show-down between the matriarch and Cheesecake (the daughter-next-in-line) all narrated by the announcers sitting above in their box, overseeing the proceedings...
until it, suddenly, becomes something else entirely.
"For you folks just tuning in Things are starting to Heat Up Here at Wembly"
Playwright Kate Benson has a remarkable knack for something so odd, making it feel almost natural. Nothing is hidden here, the play never once tries to be something it is not. It even goes so far, by the end, to prove that it knows it is some other kind of monster all together, delightfully confusingly so, as though, in the final moments, a strange veil is lifted that we as witness (as spectators at this theatrical sport) could not have possibly seen. The first moments usher us into this kind of magic (allowing us to laugh not only at the absurdity of something like a Thanksgiving dinner as spectator sport, but thus also at ourselves), and the final moments reveal just how uncomfortable that magic can become.
And it is a spectator sport. I almost wish we had the opportunity to root and cheer for certain members of the family. (Though, really, perhaps we did.) Lee Sunday Evans moves the action all over the stage in a beautifully fluid, committedly expressionistic manner - indeed, when entering the theater and taking one glance at the stage, immediately one recognizes the makings of football plays sketched across the floor (the floor that looks more like a basketball court, with turf off to the sides as one would find on a baseball field - a wonderful strewing of anatopism). And as the family emerges, they follow the plays cleanly, making decisive shifts as one member makes plays against another (with the announcers teasing apart their every move).
In delving further into the idea that all of this is nothing but "plays", no prop, no explicit suggestion to anything "demanded" by the scenes ever arrives. And beautifully so. Again, Benson's language is so potent it needs nothing to help illuminate it - indeed, to layer it up with anything else "explaining" it would become a mask. Evans handles this through fun and subtly witty twists with movement, allowing the wild array of characters to do the heavy lifting. And the characters whiz and whirl, cringe hide and twirl through the day's events (with each actor breathing great life into whatever gesture or movement it might be to represent something so simple as even setting the table).
We would like to think it might be a beautiful day on the banks of one of the greatest of the great lakes, with the family here and everyone together, happy together. But maybe it's actually kind of overcast, probably going to rain later, and with the whole family here, it's nothing but a competition, needing to prove how much more successful any of us are than any of the rest of us may be, but no one's going to bother to speak up, no one's going to demand that this tradition is ridiculous, because maybe there are moments that we come together, though maybe they aren't worth it all...
and the only way it stops is if something really extraordinary happens.
This play asks a very beautiful, if not rather difficult question: we love our family, sure, but really, why?