KNOW Theatre does solid job with perplexing play

Reviewed by George Basler

Over the past 24 years, Binghamton’s KNOW Theatre has established a solid reputation for presenting provocative and/or less well-known plays.

Its latest production, Of the Fields, Lately, which opened this past weekend (Feb. 10-12), certainly fits that bill.

The slice-of-life family drama, set in 1961, was written by Canadian playwright David French, who, I acknowledge, I had never heard of before. It’s one in a cycle of five, semi-autobiographical plays about the Mercer family, a solidly working-class family from Newfoundland, now living in Toronto.

As is normally the case with KNOW Theatre, the acting in this production is absolutely first-rate. So is the direction by Bernie Sheredy. Still, for me, Of the Fields, Lately was more interesting than emotionally compelling.

The play begins with Ben Mercer, a man in his early 20s, returning home after two years to attend the funeral of his mother’s sister. Ben had left after a violent confrontation with his father, Jacob, and the strained relationship continues after he arrives back home.

Ben discovers that his father is seriously ill with a bad heart and that his mother fears Jacob’s return to work as a carpenter will kill him. Ben has to grapple with the question of whether to remain at home or leave again.

A secondary story involves Uncle Wiff, who is mourning the death of his wife even though they had become estranged by the time of her passing.

Of the Fields, Lately deals with some pretty heavy issues; regret and mortality are at the top of the list. French is to be commended for not providing any pat answers and for presenting his working-class characters in a non-condescending way.

That being said, the Ben/Jacob relationship provides little in the way of dramatic tension. Despite some bickering back and forth, the characters remain largely unchanged from the play’s start to its end. Their issues remain unresolved.

French’s theme seems to be the inability of people to communicate with each other, even with those closest to them. That’s a provocative concept, but I kept waiting for a climactic scene that never came.

Zachary Chastain does a fine job as Ben, the melancholic estranged son, but his character is not all that interesting. His indecision about what to do with his life becomes tiresome. You want to shake him and say, “Get on with it.”

Jacob is a far more arresting character, and Michael Arcesi’s performance is a commanding one. Jacob is a wounded man, with little self-awareness, who has always depended on physical strength to define himself. When that begins to erode, he’s at a loss, leading him to lash out at those closest to him.

Arcesi, through some subtle moments, successfully shows Jacob’s physical decline while not turning him into a doddering old man. The character is not altogether likable, but Arcesi makes him sympathetic.

Laurie Brearley effectively portrays Mary, the wife and mother of the household. She shows the character’s strength while also catching her growing fear as she watches her husband’s physical decline.

In a pre-play talk, Sheredy noted that Brearley stepped into the role on late notice with limited rehearsal. That makes her performance all the more noteworthy.

But, for me, the play’s most poignant moments were provided by Tim Gleason as Uncle Wiff.

The character starts out as the stereotypical funny drunk (Uncle Wiff has apparently had a drinking problem for years). Slowly, however, Gleason peals away the façade to show the character’s sadness and regret about a marriage, once so strong and loving, that turned barren and cold over the years. It’s an excellent performance.

My feelings about Of the Fields, Lately, as you might be able to tell, are ambivalent. I admired the production but left the theater feeling emotionally let down and not knowing if I liked the play, or not. A few days later, I still haven’t made up my mind, and that’s a very strange feeling.

One thing is sure, however:  KNOW continues to showcase some of the best acting around.

IF YOU GO: Of the Fields, Lately will be performed weekends through Feb. 26 at the KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. while Sunday matinees are at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors, $15 for students). Go online to www.knowtheatre.org or call 724-4341.

A pay-what-you-can performance will be offered at 8 p.m. today (Feb. 16).

 

 

 

 

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