Victory Gardens

Warm X-mas Fuzzies: First, grease the pan. I mean really grease it. Fine. Now put on your dead mother’s floral print apron and check out the pantry for stuff that no one has eaten for years. Among others, ingredients should include one bucket of Kansas corn flour, a pinch of salt of the earth, one fertile seed, molasses, bittersweet glop, and anything else with sugar in it. Mix and water down to a smooth, all too familiar consistency. Knead it badly. Roll until paper-thin. Now for the cookie cutters. Suggested are one roly-poly widower, his successful daughter, her witty but impartial husband, the would-be-poet son, and his cute-as-a-button girlfriend. Laboriously cut out and then pop those fuzzies in the oven. Half-bake for two and a half hours, dust with confectioners’ sugar, and serve warm to a subscription audience.

No, it’s not the most original recipe in the world, but it sure is predictable. It wasn’t five minutes into Expectations before I guessed that the girlfriend was pregnant. This fact wasn’t revealed dramatically until an hour later, but the only people who hadn’t guessed were the other characters and an out-of-town party in the back room of John Barleycorn’s down the street. That left all of act two for the son to get his life together, propose marriage, and plan to move in with the lonesome, widowed father. But wait, one final touch of the bittersweet. The family–having pulled together, having triumphed over life’s most enduring problems–must sit down to an impromptu yet long postponed Christmas repast. The meal, weirdly enough, consists of chili that the mother cooked and froze before she died the previous summer.

Now it’s up to you, the audience, to decide whether to cry, throw up, or bolt for the exit. That decision will depend on a number of factors: your tolerance for melodrama, whether or not your mother is dead, and the degree to which you respond to emotional manipulation. The decision is yours. I bolted for the exit. Now, I’m fast, but immediately following the curtain call, the Sun-Times’s critic beat me to the sidewalk. But then she had an aisle seat.

There’s another factor to consider, too: our need, theatrically, for warm Christmas fuzzies. For some folks, The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol won’t cut it anymore. There must be alternatives for these war-horses. Victory Gardens, which has a reputation for producing new plays, has chosen to present Expectations, by their playwright-in-residence, Dean Corrin. Technically speaking, it’s an “original play.” But it’s not so original that it doesn’t feel familiar. You’ve seen something like it somewhere. Actually, you’ve seen something like it everywhere.

The scene is Christmas in the kitchen of a middle-class, midwestern, white family. Gene, the old man, is carrying on bravely after the death of his wife. The kids are worried about him, sure, but it soon becomes apparent that the kids are more emotionally fucked up than dad. It’s not the issue of mom so much as the way the kids resist–I don’t know–the commitment or the spirit or the implications of “family.” You see it as the son, Sid, squirms when he measures marriage against his potential as a poet. The daughter, Janine, is jealous of her husband’s devotion to his children by a former marriage. And both kids, like therapists, hold their father at arm’s length, while everyone enacts that clumsy Christmas ritual of strained affability. “I’ll get it.” “No, I can get it.” “You want me to get it?” Meanwhile, the mother’s apron hangs forlornly by the sink, like a reproach, or like . . . an apron.

But dad fixes everything. Gene has the obligatory father/son talk with Sid. Gene offers Annie (the girlfriend) the antique family high chair. He even drags up some old dolls from the basement and (wouldn’t you know it) one of them winds up in the high chair. What’s left for Sid but to acquiesce and quip, “If I was a good poet, I’d be dead by now”? (Great line, by the way.) Hugs and reconciliation all around. Asparagus garden planted. Annie–newly converted from vegetarianism–reheating chili. Father knows best.

So, you see, Expectations starts out like a complex family drama. If you can breathe after all playwright Dean Corrin’s feather dusting, you’ll find that he has excellently suggested the phenomenon of family angst and its seasonal flare-up, Christmas panic. But, rather than develop and examine this problem, Corrin opts for the warm fuzzy. Because simple problems are more easily and consummately solved. Stock characters feel and evoke off-the-shelf emotions. And with each well-greased turn of the plot, the audience is drawn away from the real world into the petting zoo of the heart. By the end of act two it was me in that high chair, facing the business end of yet another big steaming spoonful of schmaltz.

Dennis Zacek’s direction is commendable for its craftsmanship and restraint. That is, he keeps the stage action visually interesting, even within the confines of a single set, and he reins in the sentimentalism of Corrin’s script. What Zacek doesn’t manage to overcome is the predictability, the well-trod destiny of this play. For instance, act two, scene three: Sid returns from his sulk around the neighborhood. It’s late at night. He makes himself a turkey sandwich. Enter Gene. I mean, who else? Santa Claus? Every second Sid is making the sandwich, you’re watching the kitchen door, waiting for that old man, knowing that he’s going to sit down with Sid and tell him that it was just as risky when he and the dead mother first got married, and, for Christ’s sake, why not just skip to the curtain call?

Maybe this sort of sentimental journey requires more patience, or endurance, or both. What lightened the load along the way, for me, were a couple of performances. Most of all, Jack McLaughlin-Gray (as Roger, Janine’s husband) grabbed my attention, and I can’t decide whether it was the character or the actor that did it. Roger is a noncombatant, curious, amusing, icebreaker sort of character. I liked him, and I think every family could use one. I also admired Kathleen Cecchin’s performance as Annie, the pregnant girlfriend. Cecchin had body language; you knew what her character was feeling. But then you pretty much knew what you needed to know already, given the depth of the character the playwright provided.

That’s all, folks. This play asks and answers all the big questions about family. The only things I don’t understand are the set and lighting design (by James Dardenne and Barbara Reeder, respectively). One, the floor plan of the offstage rooms in the house is geometrically impossible. Two, the light from a concealed stage right window casts a shadow, at the same angle, morning, noon, and, amazingly, night. Is there a subtle message here? Is this a hint that there’s something about this play that’s not quite real? Aw, I guessed as much anyway.