reading ruminations: house of connelly

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House of Connelly [reading]

By Paul Green
Directed by Allie Mulholland & Kelsey Moore
Featuring Pete McElligott, Emily Ciotti, Libby Collins, Linda Glick
ReGroup Theatre Company at 47th Street Theatre, 304 W 47th
production web site: 
http://regrouptheatre.org/News_and_Events.html

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 6, 2011 [one night only]

  • “Things even up somehow, I reckon.” (Jesse)
  • “To live in this world you have to push things aside.” (Patsy)
47th Street Theatre, between the acts. 6 June 2011. Image by Martha Wade Steketee

There are two endings to this 1931 play read this evening. The first read represents the script as the play was performed in 1931 and summarized in Burns Mantle‘s The Best Plays of 1931-1932, and the second as the playwright originally envisioned, to be read this evening for the first time in public. Through failed air conditioning (and a game audience, most of whom soldier on with the actors) I conclude that this play is worth the effort, with either ending, more for its role in American theatre history (the first produced piece by the Group Theatre) than for its inherent delights, its unique and lasting nuance.  This is a play of its time which heralded a new kind of theatre-making with a particularly important group of theatre makers, and for that it deserves attention.

Lillian Hellman‘s The Little Foxes, Tennessee WilliamsCat On A Hot Tin Roof, Eugene O’Neill‘s Desire Under the Elms are just a few American plays that tackle the question of estates and futures and siblings battling over who gets the silver and who gets the house and how do we maintain decorum and appropriate class boundaries when no one has any money any more.  All these plays and more come to mind as this plot unfurls.  Bookended by scenes with two wise and joking field hands women Big Sis (Selena C. Dukes) and Big Sue (Laura E. Johnston) — who use the n-word as much as anyone else on stage — and that is quite often to these 21st century ears —  we live the events of a year in the life of a family who owns land that was once a plantation, in the once slave-owning region of the United States.  The class and status quo gauntlet is thrown early by Sis and Sue, who have no respect for our earnest young heroine tenant farmer Patsy (Emily Ciotti), daughter of farmer Jesse (George Bartenieff).  Patsy is not of the class of the ruling whites Sis and Sue know.  They make fun of her before the owner of the plantation comes around, and a year later in the play’s final moments are either put in their place a final time (ending one) or take events into their own hands to right the balance of power (ending two).

Sisters Geraldine Connelly (Libby Collins) and Evelyn Connelly (Kate Warren), members of the manor owning Connelly clan, bemoan the elegance of the time that was, and the winnowing of their “class” — who will be left with whom to socialize now that they are surrounded by poor whites and the children of their class go off to cities when they come of age?  These characters have no agency, and fade away eventually in the course of the play.  Their mother Mrs. Connelly (Linda Glick) toddles on and off to elegantly state the status quo and to announce the family secret that is barely shocking to our ears today: the men have been bedding and having children with women of color through the years. Images of their dead ancestors hang upstage — a simple set device for this staged reading that assists us, as more characters die through the play, as images are added to frames empty at the top of the show.

Aged Uncle Bob (Shelley Valfer) quotes Latin maxims endlessly (and pronounces them badly — was this intended by the playwright to represent a doofus?) to mark his long ago profession as a lawyer and judge responsible for a particular hanging of a black man we learn was his own son.  This particular hanging is called out among several by a number of characters early on and throughout the play.  Bob also makes sexual overtures toward Patsy, who now has her own designs on Bob’s nephew Will Connelly (Pete McElligott), the man of the estate in lieu of his deceased father.  Patsy doesn’t really love Will but she loves the land and wants to make it produce again and be run efficiently — almost “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

Tenant farmers enter and leave (Patsy has a father and there are other men, both black and white, who work the land), representing the most integrated and democratic group on stage.  The Connelly sisters have no future in the house and leave for another relative by the end of the play when it becomes clear that Patsy may move in as their brother’s wife.  And with all this plot exposition, we have a play about the southern way of life in the decades immediately after the Civil War, an event so recent that Uncle Bob was present at Appomatox when Lee surrendered. Class, money, education, race.  In one ending, two field hands who refuse to take orders from a white woman they don’t respect as coming essentially from their own class are ordered to obey her, the young couple kiss, and all is right with the world.  In a second end the two field hands remove the white woman who threatens their perception of the class order by murdering her.  Each ending seems incomplete.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 7, 2011)

1 comments on “reading ruminations: house of connelly”

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