The memories in the Robert Anderson’s 1968 memory play I Never Sang for My Father belong to Gene Garrison, a widower with both parents in declining health. Mother Margaret, survivor of cancer and a series of heart attacks, increasingly turns to him for emotional support and companionship while his father, the frustrating, blustering and occasionally charming Tom, steadfastly denies his own increasing frailty.
Tom tries to make peace with both.
“I loved my mother,” confesses Gene. “I wanted to love my father.” In these sentiments and occasionally elsewhere, I Never Sang for My Father creaks as it slips into armchair psychological verbosity and the sort of theme-underlining found in freshman English essays. “Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship” might have seemed revelatory at this script’s premiere 43 years ago, but today it has the ring of obviousness.
But director Cameron Watson honors the core truths and emotional honesty of the play in The New American Theatre’s revival, which acknowledges that only part of its power comes from the battle between father and son. The real strength comes from Gene’s wrestling match with his own guilt and with the inevitability of decline and death.
Multiplying that reality: just about anyone in the audience has either lost a parent or has a parent of a certain age. Our relationships with our own parents can’t help but inform our reaction to the play. Fair to speculate that only some of the audience tears shed are offered for the fictional characters on stage.
John Sloan, a solid leading man in the Campbell Scott/Topher Grace mode, reads too young for the written-as-40 son. Gene should be at least in sight of middle age, roughly equidistant from his painful childhood memories and the inevitable changes that he sees in his father.
Anne Gee Byrd skillfully reveals both the vibrant young woman and the fearful elderly one in Margaret: There’s a lifetime’s relationship in her efforts to keep her husband on task while ordering a meal. And Dee Ann Newkirk is appropriately defensive and aware of her own stridency as estranged daughter Alice, long ago cut off by her father and having to watch as her logical plan for taking care of him unravels before her eyes.
And then there’s Philip Baker Hall.
An 80-plus-year-old actor playing a nearly-80-year-old man on stage inevitably leads to an uncomfortable adjustment time for those bearing witness.
During that uncertain grace(less) period, audience members should be forgiven for trying to sort out whether the hesitant fishing for the next word, the cautious gate, and the ache in the eyes come from the actor faltering or from the character’s weakness.
Sometimes warm, sometimes fierce, sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassing—sometimes all in the same scene—the role challenges even an actor as credentialed as Hall. But he succeeds beautifully in building a compelling, complex character. When the farthest spot in the 30-seat house is about 25 feet from stage, the prominent veins on an actor’s hands become relevant, as does the force in which he grips a chair for support and the eye contact he makes or doesn’t make when playing one child off the other. Hall’s Tom’s is every inch the former small-town mayor who never achieved anything great nor failed in any large way.
And, particularly in a scene where he and his son must select a casket, Hall offers an acting master class. He understands that we feel his pain more sharply when Tom is working his hardest to deny it. In the process, a question about the relative cost of coffins proves more devastating than a mourner’s wail. In his reddened eyes, we not only see the man who Tom has become, but also the man he knows he isn’t—and doesn’t have the time or the drive to be.
I Never Sang for My Father, The New American Theatre (formerly Circus Theatricals), through June 19.