Precious Sons takes place in 1949, and it could very well have been written in or around that year, too. Funny, harrowing, and very moving, George Furth’s memory play is filled with echoes of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Country Girl, The Shrike, and especially The Glass Menagerie–products of the wave of serious drama in the 1940s and ’50s in which playwrights explored the dark currents that ran under the sentimental stereotypes of family life in prosperous postwar America. But Precious Sons is not just a retread of earlier plays; it speaks in its own very truthful and very painful language.
Set on the south side of Chicago, the play focuses on a lower-middle-class family, the Smalls (the name recalls Arthur Miller’s decision to name the hero of his Death of a Salesman Loman–low man). Fred, the father, seems a loutish but lovable truck driver, a man’s man who likes to roughhouse with his sons and toss sexy jokes at his wife Bea (“With an ass like that, Chicago doesn’t need a moon!”). She, meanwhile, comes off at first as a typically fussy martyr-mom, playfully bickering with her menfolk while trying to keep things running in something close to an orderly fashion. The two boys are poised to make major moves in their lives: goofy, jerky Art is graduating from high school, and, we sense, something serious is afoot between him and his girlfriend Sandra; 14-year-old Freddy, a straight-A scholar and successful child actor, has just finished eighth grade and is set to choose between the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School and a job in a Broadway touring company.
The humorous breakfast-table banter that begins the play seems to be the loving but slightly chafing interplay between any close-knit family. But with increasing starkness, Furth exposes what’s beneath the surface: a ferocious battle between Fred and his queen Bea for supremacy of the household and the future of their precious sons.
Fred, locked in a dull job because of his own lack of education, is determined that his boys go to college–“A man wants his sons to have everything he didn’t,” he says. He’s not set against Freddy becoming an actor or Art getting married (though he registers his distaste for the pampered Sandra–pronounced Son-dra–in a hilarious bit of mimicry). He just wants them to proceed cautiously and build for the future; he doesn’t want them to make the mistakes he made. Bea, on the other hand, wants to push the boys into short-term success she can comprehend–marriage and a job for Art, an acting career for Freddy.
As Bea and Fred’s disagreement escalates into all-out guerrilla warfare, Bea’s emotional instability is gradually revealed to be the cause of it. Underneath her bright-eyed energy, self-pitying humor, and nonstop nagging, Bea is a desperate, scheming, anxiety-ridden hysteric, capable of mercurial shifts from charming quirkiness to irritating one-upmanship to horrifying outbursts of violence when defied. A Depression-era child obsessed by the deaths of her parents, Bea is terrified of death and loss–so much so that she foolishly squandered her family’s savings to pay for unnecessary medical costs during Fred’s recent illness. Beyond the specifics of her financial situation, Bea has learned to seek approval from men by babying them–and so feels compelled to break any sign of strength in Fred, including any closeness he might develop with his sons.
Counterpointing the battle between mother and father are the groping efforts of the sons to establish their own identities. Art and Sandra are a comic pair of teen lovers, but in their Our Miss Brooks-style behavior (his gawky sexiness and her primping attitude) we see the seeds of another generation of ugly family feuding. Freddy, the baby of the family, is the still-malleable pawn in his parents’ conflict–an uncomfortable role to which, luckily, he brings childish idealism and precocious drollery. (“Good taste is not a primary motivator in our family,” he dryly tells Sandra after Fred, Bea, and Art have all harassed her.) In an interesting touch that reminds us of another playwright concerned with self-deluded, monstrous mother figures, Furth has Freddy read a passage from the play he’s auditioning for: Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Both as playwright and as the director of this superb production, Furth has captured with unsettling precision the way a woman like Bea can be both loving and destructive, and the confused mixture of terror, compassion, rage, bernusement, love, and guilt such behavior breeds in those who are touched by it. I don’t know to what extent Furth is writing from personal history–like Freddy, he was a child actor in the 1940s, and the play strongly implies that Freddy will become, as Furth did, a writer–but Precious Sons burns with its author’s investment in his characters; the palpable sense of Furth himself, as well as Fred and his sons, trying to come to terms with Bea’s captivating complexity makes Precious Sons a dramatic powerhouse. Only at the end, when Furth wraps up the conflict in an unconvincing, too-neat happy ending (rewritten from the original Broadway production two years ago) does the play flag in its compelling authenticity.
Precious Sons is an actor’s dream, and the excellent Pegasus Players cast dig into their roles with relish. With her constant motion, slightly wary attitude, droning voice, and reined-in intensity, Lee Guthrie gives a brilliant performance as Bea that challenges the audience to deal with this often insufferable, but clearly suffering, woman. Guthrie really makes you feel the sense of alienation that permeates Bea’s compulsive attempts to control her world, yet also makes it believable that the people closest to her can’t see her pain. Gary Brichetto is a fine partner to Guthrie, fusing macho grittiness with a common man’s self-doubting insecurity as the physically strong but weak-willed Fred. Michael Govern is just right as the impulsive, dorky Art–the all-too-real teen type exploited (but sanitized) by such actors as Richard Crenna, Tony Dow, and Tommy Kirk in the 1950s. And Christian Robinson, just out of eighth grade himself, effectively handles his pivotal role as Freddy, the pawn in Bea’s bloody game of hearts.
As he did when he staged his comedy The Supporting Cast at Pegasus a couple of seasons back, Furth shows himself to be a first-rate director in his use of stage space and physical business to delineate characters and their relationships. Precious Sons is a production of high professional quality all down the line, from Larry Hart’s sound design (incorporating a wealth of 1940s radio music) to Jeffrey Kelly’s period costumes and Peter Gottlieb’s lighting. Carl Forsberg’s set is especially excellent. It’s a detailed naturalistic living room in all respects but one: it lacks walls. Instead, beyond the confines of the nestlike room is simply an expanse of unmeasured black space (created by black curtains)–an effectively troubling metaphor for the darkness that haunts this moving, provocative play.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert E. Potter.