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“Thousand Pines”

Westport Country Playhouse

 

Westport Country Playhouse is currently presenting the world premiere of Matthew Greene’s astonishing and moving new play, “Thousand Pines.”  Featuring an amazing group of six versatile actors, this play centers on an all too timely subject: the aftermath of school shootings of students.  And though this description of the play may be off-putting, the playwright has done a brilliant job shaping this show, leading to a much-needed catharsis.  The astute director of “Thousand Pines” is Austin Pendleton, whose work here is pretty flawless, managing to bring out the best in Greene’s writing, as well as eliciting fine performances from his cast.  And while the subject of “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Playhouse will always be a difficult one to take, this play ultimately stands as a beacon of light in the darkness.

One of the most unusual things about this production can be found just from looking in the program for the show: instead of character names for the six actors, they are identified, instead, as “Actor 1, Actor 2, Actor 3,” etc.  Once the play begins, however, one immediately hears the names of the characters in the opening scene.  So why the decision to not include character names in the program?  It is here that the playwright has thrown a curve ball into his play: without giving too much away, this eighty minute production (with no intermission) is actually a trio of three separate and tragic scenes, all involving Thanksgiving and all focusing on the children who are missing from the table, the ones who were victims of school shootings.

Lest this description of “Thousand Pines” be an obstacle to seeing this play, the care and the skill of the artists involved with this show are truly stunning.  The reason that the character names are missing from the program is that the performers in the show take on multiple roles, and they lend their considerable talents to the production.  Rather than going into detail about each scene in the play, it is actually better to focus on the overall work of the actors in the show, as well as on the skill of the directorial and design elements, which are superb.

If the six performers in “Thousand Pines” work essentially as an ensemble, everyone onstage is able to make their mark in the show.  As the troubled young man in the first and third scenes, Andrew Veenstra is just wonderful, mining his characters for all they are worth.  Likewise, Katie Ailion, who appears to be roughly the same age as Veenstra, is heartbreaking, taking on three parts that, on the surface, seem to be similar, but ultimately prove to be quite different.  Anne Bates and William Ragsdale, who play disparate members of each family unit in the three separate scenes, are altogether excellent, as is Joby Earle, portraying characters who all seem to end up getting physically hurt.

Actually, everyone is hurting onstage, and, in a company of equals, Kelly McAndrew manages to stand out just a bit.  This actress takes on the “mother” figures in each of the scenes, though the range of characters that she portrays is radically different.  Somehow, McAndrew seems to be at the center of each story in the play and her acting is stupendous.  Credit, of course, also has to go to the playwright, who has taken the grim subject of school shootings and has impressively constructed a trio of scenes that are immediate, specific, and all breathtaking in how much they reveal about each separate family in a relatively short period of time.

“Thousand Pines” uses the same attractive set (expertly designed by Walt Spangler) of a dining room, a doorway leading to the kitchen, and a staircase, for each scene.  Barbara A. Bell’s costume design is entirely appropriate, instantly establishing the characters in the three separate stories, matched by the haunted lighting design by Xavier Pierce.  Indeed, everything about this play and production is haunted, specifically by the children who are missing in the separate stories, because of violence.  The playwright and his sensitive director, Austin Pendleton, have no easy answers about the harrowing subject at the core of “Thousand Pines,” yet there is a kind of breakthrough or catharsis in this play that is deeply felt.  It is highly recommended to go see “Thousand Pines” at Westport Country Theatre, though one hopes that this impressive work will have a long life beyond this world premiere production.

“Thousand Pines” continues performances at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT through November 17, 2018.  For tickets, please visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box office at 203-227-4177.

Photo: Joby Earle, Andrew Veenstra, and Kelly McAndrew

Photo by Carol Rosegg

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