By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Taking a break from its usual schedule of offering up more, shall we say, road-tested shows, PICT Classic Theatre dips their artistic toe in the pond of new play development, with the world premiere of Run the Rabbit Path by Pittsburgh playwright Ray Werner.
The story is set in the kitchen of a working-class family in one of Western PA’s many industrial towns. The father has just died and his grown children Patty, Charlie and Tommy, come together to close out the past and try to navigate what’s ahead.
Charlie is the troubled son, unable to settle at anything and seemingly adrift in the world. Tommy’s the golden boy, owner of a convenience store chain in the tri-state region and doesn’t have time for the messy emotions of family life.
Patty, as the oldest and the female, became the matriarch-like head of the family when their mother died several years ago. She moved next door to her father to keep an eye on him and it’s through her grit that the family will get through the funeral, the burial, the wake and whatever comes next.
There’s one little problem however; Pops isn’t gone. He’s dead, yes, but his “soul” is still in the kitchen and as his children interact he’s unseen on the sidelines offering advice. The play takes place in real time over 90 minutes as the family works through some issues.
I now have a confession to make. Long ago (this is so painful to say) I used to … write plays. The shame! And I was only able to leave that sick lifestyle behind me and join the human race after I went through “ex-playwright” conversion therapy.
(What, exactly, does that therapy entail? You’re tied up and made to watch Ray Cooney plays. You’re forced to sit and listen as visionary directors ramble on about a “new” dynamic in theater. Every three hours an actor comes up to you and tells you what’s wrong with your play. And, for really advanced cases, they make you meet for drinks with a theater critic. Two weeks and I was cured!)
So I’ve been on the same twisted road Werner is currently walking and I’d like to say that it never gives me pleasure having to be anything less than wildly enthusiastic about a new script … but Werner’s got some big challenges ahead as he continues down this play’s rewriting path.
If it’s any comfort to him his biggest challenge is, perhaps, the most common with new-ish playwrights; the script is almost entirely devoid of present action. Much of the 90 minutes are the siblings sitting around saying: “Remember when we –?” “How about that time when – ?” “Don’t forget when Dad said –” “I remember when Mom would –.” What makes it even more of a theatrical non-starter is that they all have the same memories so it’s people telling other people events they’ve either lived through or already know about. Even the play’s big emotion climax is a monologue about a horrible incident that happened decades ago.
Unfortunately it doesn’t get any more urgent when Werner adds a new theatrical gambit; Pops was something of a poet who’d leave short poems around the house for his wife to find. Patty drags out a box housing those old slips of paper and from then on much of the play is the three of them reading pieces of doggerel written by a dead man … who happens to be standing there footnoting the poems and telling his kids how they could be signposts to a happier life … which might be helpful if the kids could hear him.
It’s never clear what the siblings want and what’s stopping them from getting it. The obstacles need to be much stronger, the stakes much higher and the work the characters do to achieve their objectives should be the action of the play, not these repetitive trips down memory cul-de-sacs.
There’s more; lack of legitimate interpersonal conflict and, particularly, the easy, tidy endings which feel unsupported, but that’s for later. In his next draft Werner’s immediate goal should be creating some present action on stage.
Alan Stanford provides deft direction and a cast featuring Karen Baum, James FitzGerald, Reed Allen Worth and Tony Bingham prove that they are a resource any playwright would consider an enormous gift.
George S. Kaufman used to say that he planned to spend his retirement at opening nights of new shows. And, at the end, as he walked up the aisle past the miserable-looking playwright he’d just smile brightly and say: “It needs work.”
It needs work.