Robert Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father" goes right to your heart and breaks it.
First produced in 1968, it was never a big drama by Broadway standards. A series of intimate family scenes, wrapped in first-person narration, it chronicles a middle-aged son's attempts to love an irascible father, whose domineering and egocentric ways make love supremely difficult. Written in the vein of poetic naturalism that dominated much of America's postwar theater, it is forged of small details, emotional hesitations and words that, when they do not go unspoken, are only half spoken.
It is chamber drama of a sort -- the chambers being the bedroom, the hospital room and a faded corner of the living room. And yet its impact -- even in the less-than-perfect production that opened last night in the Eisenhower Theater -- is incontestable. Delicacy and restraint are so much the play's hallmarks that you may not be prepared for its final thrust -- quick, sure and implicating. Although nature automatically makes parents and children of all of us, Anderson recognizes a greater truth: We grope fitfully toward one another all our lives, trying to make sense of the relationship, sort it out, mend the rifts before time calls a halt to our fumblings.
Staged by the Berkshire Theatre Festival this summer with a cast headed by Daniel J. Travanti, Dorothy McGuire and Harold Gould, the production has been remounted for a three-week run at the Kennedy Center, to be followed by a national tour. What's wrong right now -- an emotional imbalance to certain scenes, unwanted ruptures in the play's subtle rhythms -- will, I suspect, shortly be ironed out. Already, you can hear the play singing its ineffably sad music. The grace notes cannot be far behind.
In what his "Hill Street Blues" fans are bound to see as a major turnabout, Travanti plays Gene, a widowed college professor, vaguely tongue-tied, guilt-ridden, cowed by a father who has lost none of his ability to exasperate, even though he is fast approaching 80. Gene has always been closer to his mother (McGuire), a wispy, deferential woman who mediates between father and son. But when the mother dies, Gene is left facing the old man, his endless reminiscences and his infuriating habit of putting himself center stage, even at his wife's funeral.
Gene wants desperately to embrace him and there is, perhaps, something embraceable there, but it is encased in the manners of "a retired brigadier general." Gould is stupendous in the role -- meddlesome, crotchety, dictatorial. He banished his daughter Alice (Caroline Aaron) from the house after she married a Jew, but he has endless stores of false bonhomie for waitresses, nurses and his fellow Rotarians. Justly proud of what he made of himself, he is nonetheless without magnanimity. In his grief over losing his wife, he can still quibble over the price of a coffin.
The dutiful son he sees exists largely in his imagination, but his imagination is tenacious and unyielding. The situation calls for a showdown and it will come in time, but only at great cost to Gene. And it will leave a gaping wound.
You sense the trap that lurks at the core of "I Never Sang for My Father." The two central roles dwell at opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum. The father is actively, unthinkingly irritating, while the son, by temperament and duty, is essentially passive. The one thunders and blusters and engages in emotional blackmail that has long since become second nature. The other chastens his anger, swallows his impatience and grits his teeth, all the while yearning for a chip in the old codger's fac ade, a lowering of the defenses that might lead to reconciliation.
All bristle down to his snowy white mustache, Gould so dominates the production that there are times when Travanti's quiet decency can be taken for wimpish helplessness. The furrowed brow, the awkward stance and the clutch in the throat say only so much after a while. Travantirallies in a final speech, however, in the course of which the pent-up emotions, the festering bile and a terrible awareness of unrequited love come spilling out.
It's a stunning climax and the actor plays it so beautifully you wish there had been more intimations of the brewing storm along the way. For the time being, however, one of the play's most potent scenes -- Alice upbraiding Gene for his temerity before the paternal demagogue -- is flying at about half mast.
The play's gathering impact is also somewhat impeded by David Potts' scenery, the chief elements of which are vertical blinds that open and close with a rattle and dangle in the darkness like wind chimes. "I Never Sang for My Father" is a play set in memory, but memory was never as noisy as this. The potential of this production is too abundant for director Josephine R. Abady to allow such distractions to continue to get in the way.
McGuire's frail beauty and her silvery voice serve her well as Gene's mother, a gallant, fretful woman who acknowledges her husband's shortcomings even as she pronounces him "a remarkable man." Aaron, who took over as the daughter after Mary Kay Place bowed out for a movie assignment, still appears to be feeling her way in the part. But there are nice cameos by William Cain, Jeni Royer, Sonja Lanzener and Edward Penn, as peripheral characters.
Although it was made into a successful film starring Gene Hackman and the late Melvyn Douglas, "I Never Sang for My Father" never really got its due on the stage. It's hard to believe it won't be warmly received this time. The graying of America has certainly made its concerns more sociologically pertinent than ever.
Anderson's humble eloquence and rare sensitivity do the rest. I Never Sang for My Father. By Robert Anderson. Directed by Josephine R. Abady. Set, David Potts; costumes, Linda Fisher; lighting, Jeff Davis. With Daniel J. Travanti, Harold Gould, Dorothy McGuire, Caroline Anderson, William Cain, Scott Kanoff, Sonja Lanzener, Edward Penn, Jeni Royer, John Wylie. At the Eisenhower Theater for three weeks.