Toys in the Attic

American Blues Theatre

By Carol Burbank

Even Lillian Hellman fans will admit that she’s not an easy playwright. Both campy and emotionally violent, her work is bleak yet somehow kitschy. And her characters suffer intense emotional torture, carefully contained, that destroys them by inches while the audience sweats it out, witnesses to the inevitable. In Toys in the Attic she shows us a family so invested in shame and fear that they willfully destroy themselves and one another rather than experience joy. But in a strange way, their ingrown madness and repression make it safer to look at the horror. After all, it’s too huge to be real–isn’t it?

That moment of doubt is Hellman’s genius, the tension that makes her plays–often described as gothic melodramas–more real than realism. Hellman’s bitterness and wit, her artifice and insight, produce over-the-top dramas documenting ordinary horrors–without any of the comfort of the modern therapeutic narrative.

In most contemporary family dramas, the rules of a therapy culture apply. Explosions are cathartic. The source of dysfunction is revealed and therefore loses its power. Crippled innocents begin to heal by facing the truth. Healing may sometimes happen through therapy, but the plays that employ this therapeutic model are generally banal, revealing shocking secrets but never much about the characters themselves. In Hellman’s plays, the truth is even more destructive than maintaining the family secrets, and when things go from bad to worse, the emotional intensity of the situation has an underlying sarcasm that makes audiences wince, laugh, and gasp at the same time.

Because Toys in the Attic is so different from the usual theatrical pabulum of the 90s, restaging the play is a bold move by producer Jeffrey McCourt and the American Blues Theatre. But it’s a good move. Hellman’s plays are perfect little portraits of hell, written with a devastating intelligence and a sense of perversity that makes conversations into rituals and family homes into fetish museums. In a strong production, that perversity makes for great theater.

Director Cecilie Keenan and her cast wisely underplay the worst excesses of Hellman’s declarative language and give the twisted family emotional power by creating detailed and specific characters. Carrie, Anna, and Julian Berniers–the two sisters and a brother at the center of the maelstrom–wallow in their own painful ordinariness and isolation. So when Julian, a chronic gambler, comes home with a wad of cash that will save the struggling family from their debts and give them the chance to live out their dreams, the family’s doom is sealed. They are too invested in unsatisfied desire to survive getting what they want. But instead of changing or breaking apart, they fall into a horrific decline that will leave them torturing each other through old age–and if Hellman has her way, probably beyond.

Psychological melodramas like this one are playgrounds for good actors. As Carrie, Kate Buddeke seethes with repressed everything, her conflicting emotions expressed in habitual twitching and an odd, tense way of speaking that gradually shows her to be evil but never makes her into a villain. As Anna, Carmen Roman is heroically still, moving efficiently, her back and neck held straight, revealing in the edge of her voice or a pause her fragile hope. It’s hard not to fall in love with her, although she is as guilty in her way as her sister. Their relationship shifts like a shadow shared between them, skillfully created through a sharp tone of voice, a conciliatory touch, a tiny smile. Although Julian is the center of their world, and the play’s attention, it is their relationship that a therapist would try to transform. Both likable, if pitiable, women, they have bound themselves together in such a way that neither is innocent. As bland as their lives in the sprawling family home, they are trapped in their own habits, which gradually seem more and more brutal.

Tim Decker is a frenetic Julian, grabbing people and things with a forced laugh and increasing tension that believably collapses into sobs at the end of the play. His character is the most important because he’s the focus of his sisters’ hopes, and his naivete and desperate bid for power must be their undoing. Decker’s adolescent energy and brutish eagerness effectively contrast with the women’s stillness, escalating the tension. Like his sisters, he proves to be unredeemable, and guilty of his own destruction even though he cannot be blamed for anything.

These actors’ complicated portrayals of the many tiny decisions that reinforce the characters’ cages fulfill the promise of Hellman’s play–to show the horror of love ingrown. There is no redemption here, only an increasing, barely contained hysteria never quite released. Hellman and this staging have given us not the nuclear family but the radioactive family.

I was less impressed with Deborah Puette as Julian’s mad wife, Lily, and Veleka Gray as his mother-in-law, Albertine. These characters are also trapped in their own bizarre dysfunctions, and their complicity is important to the story. But the actors’ flatter performances weakened the otherwise hallucinogenic intensity of the play. Puette reprises the drifting-victim role she played so well in Circle Theatre’s Glory of Living but without the nuances. Her singsong voice and waiflike plucking at her clothing make it hard to believe that Julian would ever have been blind to her madness. And although Gray delivers her lines with intelligence and an appropriate coolness, pacing her punch lines well, her last emotional break is almost cursory.

Dexter Zollicoffer and Carl Barnett play their supporting roles with finesse. The only survivors of the horror, their characters highlight the plot’s racial tensions, adding a complicating political element of privilege and “passing,” roleplaying and self-respect, that makes the fantasies and corruption of the white characters even more surreal. Keenan’s direction skillfully contrasts the political containment of black male southerners with the privileged isolation of the old-maid sisters and their wild brother in this women’s enclave, making their willful crippling seem even more shameful.

As pivotal as the three leads is Hank Walthal’s set, representing the home of the Berniers. Strangely combining realism and surrealism, Walthal has created a worn and uncomfortable-looking open space filled with suggestions of rooms without privacy. Although Heather Meyer’s props look as if they were stolen from someone’s house, the set also conveys an ambiguous unreality that makes the play more sinister–and at moments a little silly.

Long musical segments before the acts allow us to focus on the set, each knickknack and faux-oak beam taking on a symbolic significance as we wait for the maimed characters to continue their journey. The moldings and cornices–incomplete but painted with obvious theatricality to represent heavy oak–loom over the wall-less rooms, framed by the voluptuous shadows of trees and vines surrounding the house like some ominous jungle. The upstairs and kitchen area are suggested by props: tables, a bed, pillows. A stairway narrows precipitously from the center of the stage, impossible to climb, symbolic and dark. The tiny bed is too small even for one person, so the lovemaking scene between Julian and Lily looks about as comfortable as a backseat quickie. The bed, backed by an excessive black-lace window curtain but no window frame, angles up like an open coffin. The set is almost too excessive to support the play, but the house itself is an important character–the Berniers’ cage and curse. Appropriately, it’s as full of tension, self-righteousness, and fetishized symbolism as Hellman’s characters.

I’ve often fantasized about staging an all-male version of Toys in the Attic because of its campy gothic sensibility. But this remarkable production convinced me to save that impulse for apolitical extravaganzas like Sunset Boulevard, all glitzy surface and sentimental pretense: Toys in the Attic still packs a punch when it’s served up straight. Hellman’s plays may not be much fun to live through, but they have a painful appeal that encompasses camp without giving in to parody. During this performance I often found myself, and heard my fellow audience members, repressing those high, whinnying laughs that generally mean a playwright or actor has touched a nerve, the pain of the bashed funny bone making itself clear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): scene from Toys in the Attic.