Victory Gardens Theater

There’s something comfortable about Claudia Allen’s plays. Maybe it’s because many of them are about small-town folks in Michigan. Maybe it’s because she often explores family matters. Maybe it’s because she has a sense of humor about and compassion for her characters. They’re fleshy. They’re genuine. They have quirky flaws, but the flaws are endearing. Most appealing is that each and every character loves at least one other person in the play.

This gives Allen’s works a warm, cozy feeling, even though they’re often about volatile subjects. Her latest offering, Deed of Trust, deals with alcoholism and betrayal in a rural Michigan family during the late 1930s. In a Victory Gardens newsletter, Allen says the play is based on a true family story, one her grandma called “too painful to talk about.” And like her grandmother, Allen seems to shy away from the more bitter elements of the story. Unfortunately, by smoothing over them with a little humor and a dose of familial love, she threatens to trivialize the play’s central conflicts.

Most of the story revolves around C’Dale (Deanna Dunagan), a warmhearted, serious woman who seems to have been assigned the role of fixing all the family problems. She has an alcoholic husband, Hugh (Ned Schmidtke), and a precocious daughter named Junia (Seana Kofoed). They seem an understanding, caring family, though Hugh’s drinking binges are worrisome–they’ve grown so severe that at one point he almost kills the son of his drinking buddy, Buckley (Timothy Hendrickson), in a car accident.

C’Dale also has brothers and sisters, and that’s where her other troubles lie. Her sister Millie (Linda Kimbrough) is a snippity old bag, but underneath she has a loving heart like her sister’s. Brother Oliver (John Judd) hasn’t spoken to any of them for almost 20 years. He, too, has a warm heart, but it’s been frosted over by his anger at C’Dale, once his favorite sister, for betraying his trust. The crux of the problem is a miscommunication years before. When their father died, all the siblings but Oliver wanted to sell the family farm. Oliver had used his dreams of farming the land to get him through World War I, but none of the others seemed to care and only wanted to unload it. C’Dale, hoping to make peace in the family, bought her siblings’ shares with the intention of selling the farm back to Oliver at a low price. Oliver saw only that C’Dale bought the property out from under him, got angry, moved away, and never spoke to the family again.

It takes a tremendous amount of anger to decide never to speak to your family again, especially if they’re all such warmhearted people. But when C’Dale goes to visit Oliver, Allen never allows that anger to surface. Instead, the family’s niceness takes over and practically smothers the drama.

The play opens with rumors that Oliver now lives somewhere up north, is building his own coffin, and has been offering people $500 to shoot him. This rumor is plausible– C’Dale, Junia, and Millie feel compelled to stop Oliver from killing himself–but it’s also quirky enough to be funny. Unfortunately, the urgency of the family’s fears about Oliver is undermined by Allen’s lighthearted treatment of his chosen method of suicide.

Hugh’s drinking grows more destructive. But although the ramifications of his drinking are clearly depicted–he misses dinner, he stumbles in drunk at 4 AM–the deep pain felt by his family doesn’t come across. Most disappointing, however, is the play’s final moment. Ultimately anger wins out over love in C’Dale’s attempt at reconciliation with her brother, but that anger is never genuinely conveyed because everyone is trying so damn hard to be nice. It seems certain they’ll make amends, and when they don’t, the realization doesn’t stab our hearts as it should. Instead it surfaces just a bit, then fades as quickly as the lights dimming for the final curtain.

My beef here is Allen and director Sandy Shinner’s decision to play up the love the characters feel for each other and not their hurt. But given that choice, they’ve done a flawless job. Kurt Sharp’s set, Tracy Nicholas’s props, and Karin Kopischke’s costumes are masterpieces of design, conjuring up both the look and the feeling of rural Michigan in the 1930s. The cast give excellent performances: most of them have worked with Shinner on other Allen plays and have mastered the delicate art of ensemble acting, working beautifully together to support the playwright and director’s vision. It’s too bad that that vision undermines the potential dramatic value of this show, but at least it does so with grace and style.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.