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Theater Review: I Never Sang for My Father

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It takes a certain amount of courage these days to mount a classic family drama from the 1960's. The tone of theater -- not to mention the attention span of audiences -- has changed considerably since those days. But the revival of Robert Anderson's family drama about a son's longing for a father's love gets a heart-wrenching, luminous outing from the New American Theatre in Los Angeles, thanks to the talents of an extraordinary cast under the direction of Cameron Watson, capped by an inspirational performance by Philip Baker Hall.

Anderson's play opens as Gene Garrison (John Sloan), a young, recently widowed college professor, is picking up his aging parents Margaret (Anne Gee Byrd) and Tom (Philip Baker Hall) at the train station as they return to New York after a winter in Florida. Tom, the family patriarch, is a cantankerous, self-made man who is not going gently into the good night of old age. For her part, Margaret has a long-suffering patience for her husband and a deep devotion to her son.

As the play proceeds, Gene is torn apart by his desire to start a new life in California and the guilt over abandoning his frail and ill parents. His mother urges him to go to California, while his father clings desperately to his son, even as he belittles him and proclaims loudly that he doesn't need anyone to help him. When Gene's mother dies, the son is left alone to resolve his conflict and decide his destiny.

The play is deeply moving and remarkably timely, considering the well-trod dramatic territory it covers. Director Watson wisely steers the cast to the essential and unvarnished truths of the play, and these magnificent performers take up the challenge with gusto. Sloan is wonderfully understated and focused in his performance, striking exactly the right tone and refusing any impulse toward sentimentality. Byrd is remarkable as the mother, fully inhabiting the character while providing a gentle, guiding hand to the story.

The crowning achievement of the piece is the work of Philip Baker Hall, who is transcendent in his portrayal of this raging, dying bull of a man. He brings an aura of both reality and universality to this character, and stitches this role indelibly into the theatrical firmament. It is an historic performance. The supporting cast includes a vivid turn by Dee Ann Newkirk as Gene's sister, as well as fine appearances by John Combs, Brittani Ebert, Tim Halligan, Paul Messinger and Chelsea Povall. Scenic design by John Iacovelli and costumes by Terri A. Lewis round out what is a memorable and important production.

An earlier version of this review appeared in Back Stage