As society roils about them with its shifting mores and traditions, a set of characters finds mooring at a dining room set -- a scene that never changes even though the stories do.
The production marks the first major East Coast revival of the play, which requires a cast of three men and three women to play multiple roles spanning time and age.
There are 18 separate, scenes, but they are anchored in the motivations, expectations and disappointments of a vanishing upper-middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant society.
"It is very challenging the way it is written," said director Mark Lamos, who also is the playhouse's artistic director. "The playwright doesn't want costume changes or wigs, so the actors have to do it through their acting.
"But, it can't be too caricatured either. It is a blend between the excellent writing that sets up each scene and then the work of gently setting up the character."
For instance, Jake Robards, who is in his 30s, must transition from a 70-year-old man to a young teenager in a matter of moments.
"It's just so much fun to do and challenging at the same time," said Robards, who is the son of the late American actor Jason Robards.
"I think the beauty of the play is that these are timeless stories," said Robards, who grew up in Fairfield's Southport section and recently returned to Fairfield County after living in New York City for some time. "They are true to life."
Although the play puts a focus on a particular segment of society, Robards said the stories are transcendent, dealing with issues that everyone faces as they make their way through life -- the decisions that are made (for better or worse), the crossroads that are reached and the compromises that are made.
"I've done four or five of (Gurney's) other plays, but this just struck me as one of his very finest," Lamos said. "It seemed the right kind of piece to open the season with, since it is all about family in one way or another.
"There is this large extended family in the dining room, a family created by virtue of its background, culture and needs," he added.
The ensemble work and the need to work together and quickly has had its effect on the cast.
"This is just a great cast to work with," said Keira Naughton, one of the three women in the cast, which also includes Heidi Armbruster and Jennifer Van Dyck. Rounding out the cast are Chris Henry Coffey and Charles Socarides. Naughton grew up in Weston, but now lives in New York City.
"From the first day, we discussed how it would be a mistake to fully, fully embody each character 100 percent," she said. "The writing does much of the work for you, but the challenge is making a character that is both subtle and clearly defined."
Or, as Lamos noted, "just giving the audience enough" of a character's depth before having to move on to the next vignette -- which are all interrelated.
Naughton, who got her start in acting in the mid-1990s and whose father is American actor and director James Naughton, inhabits a handful of roles, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings and an older woman with Alzheimer's.
"There's something rather touching about seeing characters come and go from that one room," she said.
Drama Desk Award-winner Gurney is expected to participate in a conversation with the audience following the Sunday, May 5, 3 p.m. performance. David Kennedy, the playhouse's associate artistic director, will moderate.
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