It's a comment on the reality of 21st century theater that Ketti Frings' Look Homeward, Angel, her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1957 stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's beloved autobiographical novel, has rarely been seen in New York since its debut. After all, few companies can afford to put on plays with 16 characters, and the title isn't as immediately recognizable to modern audiences as such better-known family dramas as Arthur Miller's All My Sons or Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. So we should be grateful that Mother of Invention has tackled this still-potent work, even if director Austin Pendelton's decidedly uneven production at the Abingdon Theatre fails to do it full justice.
While Pendelton has proved with his previous work at Classic Stage Company (Ivanov, The Three Sisters) that he can do more with less, no one could probably overcome the challenge of putting on such a large-scale piece in the tiny black box of the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre. Here, Pendleton's blocking means some actors obscure their castmates at key moments, and his use of chairs to demarcate the various locations within Dixieland, the boardinghouse in which most of the show takes place, isn't completely effective in letting us know exactly where each scene takes place.
Still, the story of the beleaguered Gant family in 1916 North Carolina still comes shining through. Matriarch Eliza (Gina Stahlnecker), a woman obsessed with money and control, spends much of her time bullying her hardworking daughter Helen (Ginger Grace), sickly son Ben (Adam Dodway), and 17-year-old Eugene (Keegan McDonald), who dreams of escaping all the in-fighting to attend college. In addition, while it's clear that Eliza does love her kids, they also rightly feel Eliza puts the needs of her boarders ahead of theirs, making them eat after the guests and using them as glorified servants.
Still, even Eliza can be rude to the paying customers who don't follow her rules, notably the married, older Mrs. Pert (Mindy Luce), who is romantically involved with Ben and brings forbidden alcohol into the house. She's also noticeably cool to 23-year-old visitor Laura James (Kristin Patton) once she realizes that Eugene has fallen for her and is considering giving up his plans for advanced education to marry her. The only person Eliza shows consistent kindness to is her brother, Will Pentland (Andrew Mayer), a realtor who helps her buy and sell various local properties.
Eliza's most tumultuous relationship is with her often drunk, deeply unhappy husband W.O. (Jim Broaddus), a local stonecutter who is frustrated that he has never been able to finish a particular marble statue of an angel — an obvious symbol for all his shattered dreams. Broaddus delivers the production's finest performance, sometimes roaring around the stage like a monster, but also showing us W.O.'s vulnerability and tenderness (especially towards his children). And in a superbly played second-act scene when W.O. refuses to sell the angel to his old friend Madame Elizabeth (the talented Debra Lass), we realize how much W.O. actually loves his craft, perhaps more than his own family.
Despite Stahlnecker's tentativeness with some of her lines at the first performance, it's also clear how firm a handle the actress has on Eliza, which is one of the richest and most complex female parts in American theater. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Pendelton's cast members (almost all of whom are his acting students) aren't completely up to their tasks, which robs the production of some of the play's nuance and power. Nonetheless, there are plenty of moments in Pendelton's version that speak to us loudly and clearly.