Steppenwolf Theatre Company

“My lips move,” says Ruth, the enigmatic female outsider in the all-male household of Harold Pinter’s 1965 drama The Homecoming. “Why don’t you restrict . . . your observations to that. Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant . . . than the words which come through them. You must bear that . . . possibility . . . in mind.”

For many observers, Ruth’s pause-laden admonition might serve as a guide to appreciating Pinter’s work from his first decade of play writing. The immediate events in Pinter’s plays, they would argue, are what’s important, not why things happen. Certainly, in The Homecoming, Pinter declines to offer any explanations for the bizarre events that transpire during the 24 hours in which the story takes place. Yet as with any dream–and The Homecoming is very much a dream play, despite its outward appearance as a naturalistic psychological thriller–the actions and images the playwright-dreamer presents, so confounding in their apparent obviousness, are filled with an emotional resonance that stems from the unseen, half-forgotten past.

Teddy, a British philosophy professor at an American university, returns one night, after a six-year absence, to the dreary North London house he was born and raised in. He brings his wife Ruth to meet the family: his widowed 70-year-old dad Max, his prissy bachelor uncle Sam, and his younger brothers Lenny and Joey. It is a coarse, brutish family of men, seething with mutual contempt, fierce discontent, pathetic pretensions, and the potential for quick and frightening violence. They at once despise and depend on women, and eventually, with Ruth’s passive but deliberate acquiescence, they take possession of Ruth as their shared mother-wife-whore–a decadent Wendy to their degenerate Lost Boys–while Ted aloofly returns to the U.S.

And, despite claims of living in the present–“Who can afford to live in the past?” Max declares–this is a family obsessed with its own history. The fact that this history is never revealed by the playwright is the key to the play’s effect on an audience and its appeal to actors–surely to an acting ensemble such as Steppenwolf (and it’s notable that this is the first Steppenwolf production in quite a while whose cast consists entirely of Steppenwolf ensemble members). There is no “right” way to do The Homecoming, no definitive interpretation. After all, does any dream have just one interpretation to be understood equally well by the dreamer and those with whom he shares the dream?

Unlike, say, Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, Pinter does not provide cathartic confessions of past sins to explain present suffering. But he litters his script with clues and implications that the actors, director, and audience can explore together–though, inevitably, they will arrive at dissenting, highly personal conclusions.

In his cool, literal-minded staging of this key work of modern drama, director Jeff Perry pays close attention to the clues Pinter offers in his dialogue and stage directions. Veiled hints that Max and his late wife (whom Ruth eventually comes to replace) incestuously molested their sons are underlined: in the nervousness that Ted (Randall Arney) displays as he approaches the stairway leading up to his old bedroom, in the mocking tone with which Max (Alan Wilder) asks Ted for “a cuddle,” and in the bilious, probing gaze that Lenny (Tom Irwin), whose professional expertise as a pimp guides the family as it wrests Ruth away from Ted, levels on every member of the family.

Perry also underscores Pinter’s hints about the state of Ted and Ruth’s marriage, a key factor in beginning to understand why Ruth submits to the role Max and his sons cast her in. Moira Harris’s high-pitched, dreamy delivery of Ruth’s dialogue (oh, those famous Pinter pauses) is a none-too-subtle indication that the woman is (barely) recovering from a mental breakdown or worse, that she’s on drugs for her unstable condition, and that her breakdown stems at least in part from her discomfort in the role of American wife. (“It stretches . . . so far . . . everywhere you look,” she says of her adopted, soon-to-be-abandoned home. “And there’s lots of insects there.”) Reinforcing the notion of Ruth as mentally unbalanced is the concealed dread Arney’s Ted registers when his wife says she wants to take a walk outside for “a breath of air,” as if he fears she’ll wander away or attempt suicide as perhaps she has done before. At the end, when Ted tries to dissuade his brothers from keeping Ruth, he lamely explains, “She’s not well”; a line that could be read as just a weak lie takes on real urgency here–an urgency rendered ironic by Ted’s resolute surface calm, the intellectual insulation he maintains to distance himself from his own capacity for violence and whatever brutalization he has endured.

Steppenwolf’s production is deficient in key areas. One problem is the limitations of the theater’s stage: for instance, the spooky, looming stairway Pinter envisioned is reduced to a few steps and a landing by the auditorium’s low ceiling, and the wonderful scene in which Ruth and Joey, locked in an icily passionate embrace, roll off the living-room couch loses much of its weird humor because the stage is too small for them to roll very far and too low for most of the audience to see the action. Beyond technical problems, though, Perry’s detailed direction focuses on the trees but misses the forest: it lacks the pervasive mood of menace and suspense necessary to register the subconscious impact of a dream as well as the conscious impact of a story. There’s no danger here, no real surprise.

But from moment to moment, the production is always intelligent, if not always theatrical. All the performances are individually effective–particularly Tom Irwin’s slimy, nasal-voiced Lenny, Alan Wilder’s ratlike, runty, loathsome Max (as if the cartoon character Andy Capp were caught with a cache of kiddie porn), Jim True’s disturbingly loutish Joey, and Rick Snyder’s buttoned-down uncle Sam; Harris, while lacking the smoldering sexuality the role of Ruth requires, creates a memorable portrait of a disoriented girl-woman. Even as the actors perform with the fine-tuned sensitivity of a first-rate ensemble, they convey the sense of isolation each character feels; Erin Quigley’s impeccably detailed, varied costume designs are a great help here. And though Perry neglects the important subtheme of Jewish-gentile conflict (Ruth, named after King David’s non-Jewish mistress, is the shiksa intruder into the patriarchal domain of a group of working-class British Jews), he captures Pinter’s scathing satire of marriage as prostitution and the family unit as sick slavery–every man’s nightmare of returning to the home he was well-advised to escape.