Playwright: Brian Friel. At: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Phone: 773-528-9696; $20. Runs through: Nov. 17
We inherit more than our names, genes and property from our families. We also inherit family history, family traditions and often family fictions. Such bequests may be of greatest importance in communities in which a family has been a fixture for generations; say, an Irish rural village where life long has revolved around the wealthy lords of the manor living in the great house on the hill.
Eminent Irish playwright Brian Friel gives us such a family and community in Aristocrats, set in the fictional town of Ballybeg in Ireland's West Country. Now, in the 1970s, the O'Donnells have fallen into financial and spiritual decay as surely as their once-lively and elegant Georgian mansion is crumbling about them. The mansion is the gathering place as the Next Generation—three sisters and a brother—return home for a family wedding, their stroke-debilitated father still able to make them cringe through his voice alone.
These themes and story elements would perfectly suit a play by Chekhov or O'Neill, and Aristocrats has been compared to both. But Friel takes a step beyond family to reflect on how the larger community is affected, the local peasants as they once would have been called. The traditional peasant regard for the lofty O'Donnells, colored by duty and awe, has turned to sorrow and contempt as the disintegration of its aristocracy diminishes Ballybeg's sense of self and of order.
Viewed at a late preview, Aristocrats had not yet coalesced into a powerful production. The mechanics were excellent; the elements of scenic, lighting and costume design, the carefully-selected furnishings, the staging of scenes and even the polished Irish dialects of the actors ( although generically Irish vs. specifically West Country ) . But important pieces were missing at the emotional level. Act I liberally dispenses bitterness and recrimination between various family members, but the source of the underlying Clan O'Donnell angst never was explained. The often-heard but briefly seen father obviously has terrorized his intelligent children, especially his only son who cannot even live in Ireland any more. But Friel never reveals exactly what Da has done to them, other than shout a lot.
It's left, then, to the director and actors to fill in the subtext, and the subtext was what remained incomplete. As staged by Steppenwolf Ensemble member Rick Snyder—a gifted actor who's become a gifted director—the cast frequently was aggressively loud, sometimes in anger and sometimes in giddy enthusiasm, but all to the detriment of real emotional extension which usually is Snyder's strength. Aristocrats very much is an ensemble piece, well-suited to the abilities and style of the Strawdog company, who certainly have the chops to take this work further and explore all its autumnal colors.