Many plays have a familiar source of drama and intrigue: Get a family to reunite for whatever the reason and all of the passion and suppression will find its way out there. For theatergoers, some of the plot devices can be predictable. But Donald Margulies's The Country House takes this format to new heights. And director Daniel Sullivan knows exactly how to squeeze out every last bit of tension and relief.
Blythe Danner stars in the lead role as the matriarch of a family that her character, Anna, might not have chosen, both in that authoritativeness and in the biological makeup. She's an aging actress with her heart set on recapturing the glory of her youth, even at the expense of her familial duties. Everyone comes to expect little of Anna, something that's present throughout the play without being acknowledged in the open. This is a craft that Sullivan masterfully delivers, with the help of his stellar cast, Danner on down. Eric Lange's performance as Elliot, the overlooked and unaccomplished uncle, steal the last third of the show and keeps the audience bracing for his next move.
The Manhattan Theater Club production, playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is chock full of understatements and what's left unsaid. Sarah Steele soars as Susie, the grand-daughter who is forced to try to keep everything together a year after her mother's untimely passing. You get the sense that the mother was the glue that kept this crazy family together, and now Susie has to unwillingly step up or step out. The deceased mother's presence can be felt extremely prominently in how each of the characters approaches life, love, and memory.
It's a formula that works most effectively because all of the pairings between the six characters works in its own right. Margulies explores how different generations interact and overcome differences, how outsiders can penetrate and be repelled by inner circles, and how when everything seems to be coming undone, someone steps up and calls for repairs for the sake of others. There's clearly love and compassion in the air, but you have to look beneath the surface at times to identify it.
That's a feat that great plays like this one can achieve. They can get us to think and feel and reconsider the conditions at hand. Everyone is more complex than they might seem, while everything might be more rehabilitative than they can imagine.