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Milburn Stone Theatre A Contemporary American’s Guide to a Successful Marriage c. 1959

By • Apr 11th, 2012 • Category: Reviews

There is nothing quite as ripe for a spoof as those old-fashioned, black-and-white, educational videos about how to manage all of the important things in life. In the case of A Contemporary American’s Guide to a Successful Marriage c. 1959, it is a spoof of one of these videos about marriage. The play attempts to poke fun at the traditional expectations of marriage, while trying to push the message that such traditional formulas for success were never that successful in the first place. At times, the humor is very successful. However, when the story takes a turn for the serious, actors are left confused by the weak transition in the script that does not account for the very two-dimensional characters that have been created. Although Milburn Stone Theatre’s cast seemed to do their best to breathe believability and life into these scenes, it was hard to create back story and nuance where there was none. The script was so driven by plot and concept that it all but forgot about believable through-lines for characters.

The design team also did their best with creating a set design, costume design, backdrops, and props that were reflective of the time period; unfortunately, the ill-placed and seemingly without purpose anachronisms contained in the script (ie: men allowed in the delivery room in 1960 Iowa, a white couple adopting African babies in 1960s Iowa, an openly gay male nurse in 1960s Iowa — granted some of these things in rare cases may have happened, but for them all to happen in the same small group of characters is an example of the contrived nature of the script — especially when it is supposed to be a video which would not show such unconventional choices) detracted from the well-created ambience. Liberal-minded audience members already on the same page as the author may appreciate the heavy-handedness of the message in this piece, but more conservative audiences are unlikely to be swayed by the unrealistic plot twists and hollow characters. Laughter may be generated by some of the gags, absurd situations, and the narrator’s dialogue, which is often more clever and witty than that of the characters, but, beneath the laughter and especially when the laughter end, the script leaves little real emotional resonance with any of the characters. Emotional connection and identification with characters is the real heart of a theatre experience, and this script denies that possibility. All of these flaws exist despite an excellent attempt on the part of Milburn Stone to overcome them. However, they could never overcome the major mistake they made: selecting the script.

The production begins with a beautiful and authentic credit sequence in black-and-white that does a wonderful job of the setting the tone and concept. The stage floor has a clean and interesting design of nuclear atoms in pastel colors. Rear projections are used to show the various locales and migrate from black-and-white to color as the story moves forward in time. Set pieces are moved in and out quickly and are all nicely detailed for changing the locations simply. The lighting is well-designed to shift between scenes and to indicate when a character is speaking to the narrator and when a character is within a scene.

The entire story is told under the helm of a narrator. As the voice of the narrator, Russell Matthews does an excellent job of mimicking the tone and cadence of the stereotypical, instructional-video narrator and providing excellent dead-pan delivery to even some ridiculous lines. He tells the story of two young married couples. Abby (Madi Ferguson) and Mason (Brett Pearson) are the “perfect” couple: young, high-school sweethearts. Mason was even the head quarterback. The pair met at the lockers, went to prom, and went steady. Madi Ferguson has the benefit that Abby is probably the closest thing to a well-developed character in the piece, although there is still a jarring transition in the middle. Ferguson really does the best job possible in navigating that transition from caricatured “girl next door” to a woman dealing with her dreams not coming true. On the other hand, poor Brett Pearson has little to work with. Mason’s actions almost never make sense, and the author sees little reason to provide over-detailed explanations of his character’s reason for just being so apathetic about everything: his wedding, his child’s birth, never seeing his kids again. The one blanket explanation offered of “he was not ready” does not begin to cover the real complexity of emotions that would go through an actual person in this experience. Pearson ends up coming across as apathetic and uninteresting as his character, but it should be blamed on the dialogue not his effort or talent.

At the same time, the narrator tells us the story of Danny Henry (Ryan Milliner) and Ruth Gundley (Jennifer Wilson). This is a perfect example of the flawed script: Why does he tell this story? There is no way that the story of Danny and Ruth, which is ripe with “sin” from moment one would ever be included in such an instructional video. The author has instantly navigated away from his own conceit. So, the exploits of Danny and Ruth may be funny in contrast, but they show, almost immediately, that the script is far from clever. Their entire story is a myriad of questions: Why would a 23-year old, sexy graduate student seduce a 16-year old nerdy boy? Why would anyone believe that she was then faithful and was definitely pregnant with his child? Why would she want to get married, even pregnant, to this guy that she hardly seemed to like? Why does she break and apologize and beg when he finally decides to end the marriage? Like the character of Mason, the character of Ruth is another complete enigma. From beginning to end, she makes insane decisions and reacts in absurd ways to fit the story, living little true character for the actress to hang her hat on. And, boy, does Jennifer Wilson try! She is working her butt off the entire show, throwing herself into each scene, and trying to bring some reality and heart to Ruth. It would be awesome to see what Wilson could do with a better-written role. In this couple, Milliner got the better written character with a little more depth, levels, and likability. Milliner does a good job of capitalizing on the likability of his character and uses it to try and add nuance to several of the flatly written scenes. His pain when Ruth is saying some awful things to their daughter is one of the most real moments in the piece and closest to drawing in real empathy from the audience.

The supporting roles are, unfortunately, even more caricatured exaggerations of stereotypes — including an actual Nazi officer, the aforementioned gay male nurse, a before-her-time feminist, an extremely conservative and in denial single mother with over-the-top favoritism for one child, and so on and so forth. The supporting cast, like the leads, worked hard to make sense of these characters and give them life. When that failed, they simply went for laughs. With Abby’s family, Dorothy (Cindy Zern) and Sheryl (Serenity Rowland), this almost worked. Their scenes were some of the most interesting, and they both did a good job of injecting some heart and believability into their very over-the-top characters. With Danny’s family, it did not work as well for Connie Regan (Brunhilde), who tried to embrace the wild character in a way that was stunted and trying too hard, or for A.J. LoPorto, who was so impressed with the audience laughter at his line that he turned away from the audience and tried to unsuccessfully hide the fact that he was shaking with laughter. Tyler Bristow (Michael) had a few moments that exhibited his potential as an actor; unfortunately neither of his bit parts had much meat. On a plus side, even though she looked too old, Nicole Travers (Evelyn) did a good job of mimicking the mannerisms of a much younger child.

Director Marshall B. Garrett assembled a talented cast and design team. He brought the elements together with unity and vision. Unfortunately, he could not overcome the ill-conceived structure of the play, the unrealistic characters, the forced dialogue, or the contrived situations. Hopefully, he will get the chance to bring all the same pieces together with a better piece of material in the future.

Cast

  • Abby Lawrence: Madi Ferguson
  • Mason Lawrence, Jr.: Brett Pearson
  • Danny Henry: Ryan Milliner
  • Ruth Gundley: Jennifer Wilson
  • Dorothy Peck: Cindy Zern
  • Sheryl Howard: Serenity Rowland
  • Brunhilde Henry/Ellen: Connie Regan
  • Henry Henry/Dr. Osborne/Doctor: A.J. LoPorto
  • Michael Henry/Jeremy: Tyler Bristow
  • Evelyn Henry: Nicole Travers

Production

  • Director: Marshall B. Garrett
  • Stage Manager: Laurie Brandon
  • Assistant Director: Tess Pohlhaus
  • Projection Design: Russell Matthews
  • Lighting Design: S. Lee Lewis
  • Scenic/Costume Design: Laurie Brandon, Marshall B. Garrett
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Diane Berquist
  • Crew: Diane Berquist, Terry Ferguson, Brandon Gorin, Ed Helston, Amy Murphy

Disclaimer: Milburn Stone Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been involved in theatre in the state of Maryland and DC for most of her life. She has acted, directed, choreographed, stage managed, and held a million other odd jobs. She has a B.S. in English from Towson University, and is currently pursuing her Master's Degree to become a Reading Specialist. She is a Maryland State Certified English, Theatre, Elementary, and Mathematics Educator. After teaching English and Drama for many years, she now teaches 6th grade Language Arts at Magnolia Middle School in Harford County, Maryland. She wrote the curriculum currently used in Prince George’s County Public Schools for Drama I and Drama II. She now writes and directs plays and musicals for use in church.

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