Judith Light and James Waterston
in Children
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Judith Light and James Waterston
in Children
(© T. Charles Erickson)
As any informed theatergoer knows, the plight of contemporary White Anglo-Saxon Protestants is the terrain of playwright A.R. Gurney. The same subject was also charted masterfully by the author John Cheever, whose highly esteemed short story "Goodbye, My Brother" -- a fictionalized record of his complicated relationship with his brother, Fred -- served as Gurney's inspiration for his early play, Children, which is now receiving an inspired revival at the Westport Country Playhouse (before transferring in July to the Williamstown Theatre Festival), under John Tillinger's direction.

It may be Cheever's skill at consistently cutting to the bone that gives the play some added power, even though Gurney takes many liberties with the source material, which concerns a brother -- here called Pokey -- who returns to the family summer house after a five-year absence for an ultimately explosive reunion.

As Gurney contrives it, Pokey is only seen once and then doesn't speak, while those talking non-stop with mounting resentment are Mother (Judith Light), her recently divorced and touchy daughter, Barbara (Katie Finneran), her more obedient but petulant son, Randy (James Waterston), and his increasingly disillusioned wife, Jane (Mary Bacon). What this quartet mostly discusses in a series of taut, tense scenes on an outdoor terrace (beautifully designed by James Noone) is how they'll handle the summer house when Mother marries an old family friend called Uncle Bill and therefore must pass the residence to the contentious siblings, as was specified in their late father's will.

Gurney's purpose with Children is examining a way of life called into question when one person born to the manner renounces it. As the four main participants stand their ground no matter how shaky it's become and how unsure their footing, Gurney has them explicitly and implicitly consider the spoken and unspoken rules by which they live. To his credit, he ultimately refuses to condemn outright the standards any one of them has allowed to determine their behavior. The criticism and concomitant compassion Gurney hands around equally is part of the work's sure wisdom.

Gurney's characterizations are equally well balanced. Light plays Mother with cold insight. Her head always held firmly at the upwardly tilted angle of the self-consciously patrician, Light's Mother is a woman who has tried to raise a family by the model preceding generations have set for her, all the while keeping a sad and difficult secret about her marriage to a man who committed suicide. Waterston doesn't miss any subtlety in showing Randy's aging-boy discontentment. A secondary teacher and coach, Randy has never risen above the rivalry he's felt -- or perhaps imagined -- with Pokey, and which leads to the play's pivotal act. Finneran and Bacon also acquit themselves quite well in their roles.

Ultimately, this is the kind of production that solidly reaffirms how trenchantly moving Gurney can be.