Review by Kathleen Campion
Set in a lakeside summer community in 1945, What I Did Last Summer is a coming-of-age tale, the coming of age of playwright A.R. Gurney. The play debuted in 1981.
The current production, at Signature, benefits by charming staging and graphic effects that are brilliant in their simplicity and whimsy. The entire presentation rides on sounds generated by a single, stage-side musician (Dan Weiner) on a drum set. The production value combines to enliven the attic feel of the subject.
Young Charlie (Noah Galvin) lives that summer of ’45 at the lake house with his 18-year old sister, Elsie (Kate McGonigle), and their mother, Grace (Carolyn McCormick). They are in that charged space between victory in Europe in spring and the Japanese surrender at summer’s end. Dad is on a destroyer escort, fighting in the Pacific.
Grace is at her wits’ end trying to manage the house, the rationing, and the two demanding teenagers—not to mention her own libido. Elsie is missing the father she idolizes and the boys who should be chasing her, but instead are at war. Charlie tumbles and struts into the opening scene with the kinetic energy of 14-year-old boy, to tell us this play is about him.
Throughout the play each of the characters arrives on stage to suggest this play is about them, breezily breaching the “fourth wall” to comic effect. Gurney reminds us that we are all the stars of our own soap operas.
Act One is, of course, the set up. Charlie and his friends fight the battles of growth spurts, uncomfortable courting, drivers’ licenses and just who is tall enough to ride The Cyclone. The absent father looms large as the boys try out typical, if annoying, behaviors. The women and girls (there is the sister and the girl next door, Bonny) are one dimensional and arranged around Charlie.
Enter the “Pig Woman” (Kristine Nielsen) a bohemian teacher living on the edges of Gurney’s WASP-rich world. She is a castoff from that world; she knows it well and disdains it thoroughly. She is Charlie’s ebullient refuge—while something of a scolding Greek chorus into the bargain.
As we filed out for intermission, Act Two seemed to promise little more than “bad news from the front.” Happily, the predictable does not happen. The second act conflict is richer as the two women, Alice and Anna, confront the ancient schism that divided them, and, ultimately they face off over Charlie’s future.
What I Did Last Summer offers each of the characters at least one monologue; a moment to see the play from that character’s perspective. It is a winning device for the actors. The audience warms to Noah Galvin as he carries the cross of adolescence and the demand he “reach his potential” on his not-yet-broad shoulders. Pico Alexander, as his Canadian pal Ted, lets vulnerability check bravado when he talks directly to the audience. Carolyn McCormick (Alice) while harried, gives us this complex young woman on a platter. Kate McGonigle is given little to do but whine, which she does with distinction. Juliet Brett (Bonny) is perfect as the flirtatious teenaged girl sizing up her options.
It is, however, Kristine Nielsen’s (Anna Trumbull) play. Gurney has shared in interviews that there was a real “pig woman” in his young life and he thanks her, with this character, for nudging him to take himself seriously as an artist. Nielsen is delightful.
What I Did Last Summer – By A.R. Gurney; directed by Jim Simpson
WITH: Noah Galvin (Charlie), Pico Alexander (Ted), Carolyn McCormick (Grace), Kate McGonigle (Elsie), Juliet Brett (Bonnie), and Kristine Nielsen (Anna).
Designed by Michael Yeargan; lighting by Brian Aldous; sound by Janie Bullard; projection design by John Narun. At Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd St through June 7th. Running time two hours, one intermission.