PLAY REVIEW: 'Family Furniture' — last weekend to see at Ojai Art Center Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

web 7 2 Family furniture TOM MOORE Benjamin KiSea in Heated Discussion 200dpi P1460155 rot crPhoto by Tom Moore

Nick (Benjamin Wilson) and Peggy (KiSea Katikka) perform in Ojai Art Center Theater’s “Family Furniture.”

Last weekend to catch this play:

“Family Furniture” will be performed on Saturday, July 17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 18, at 2 p.m.

Tickets: General $20, Art Center members and seniors, $18

For reservations, call 805-640-8797.

By Vivien Latham, Special to the Ojai Valley News

In one scene of Ojai Art Center Theater’s latest live play, “Family Furniture,” as Claire and son Nick clean up porch furniture, Nick wonders aloud why his parents don’t just buy new furniture. Claire replies, “There’s something resonant about using old family things.” 

In playwright A.R. Gurney’s look at family life in Buffalo, he examines the older generation’s desire to keep things the way they are versus the younger generation’s aim to try new things. The play deals with infidelity, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and an unplanned pregnancy. The family struggles trying to keep things as “normal” as possible, something that upper class WASP families in the button-down ’50s felt was necessary.

Set in 1952, the play revolves around a family enjoying summer in their home near Lake Erie. As the play starts, there are already cracks in their supposedly secure family life. Russell (Buddy Wilds) is concerned about his wife, who has gone to New York City for a short trip. She isn’t at her hotel and he has no idea where she is — or what she is up to. Nick (Benjamin Wilson) is suspicious about his mother’s friendship with a neighbor. Is it friendship or something more? 

Russell also expresses concern about Nick’s girlfriend, Betsy (she’s Jewish), and his daughter Peggy’s boyfriend, Marco (unseen), who is Italian-American. To his consternation, Peggy (Kisea Katikka), who is attending Vassar, is considering marrying Marco. Russell compares marriage to opera, insisting that couples are happier when they come from similar cultural backgrounds.

If there is a protagonist in the play, it’s Nick, who is upset about his mother’s alleged affair with a longtime friend.

Peggy doesn’t believe his accusations. She has more important things on her mind. She hasn’t decided whether or not to marry Marco or pursue a relationship with a man she met on her European trip, a man who is a rich WASP, and therefore acceptable to her father. 

Will Deaux’s set is like a black box. There is a black drop upstage, with two large windows, draped with white curtains. The furniture is simple: two white benches, a matching white stool, and two black boxes. At the start of the play, they are positioned like an odd-looking sculpture. The actors move the furniture pieces from scene to scene to indicate the living room, the porch, and family sailboat. 

Wilds and Katikka either have experience sailing or have been taught by an expert; their mime of using the ropes and sails whilst ducking the boom is precise. 

Director Tom Eubanks’ use of furniture makes the set stark and versatile. Popular music from the ’50s is used to bridge each scene with Sound Designer Steve Grumette’s selection of songs, sometimes to wry, humorous gru.

Sheryl Jo Bedal’s costumes beautifully capture the look and the feel of the early ’50s.

Wilds, a veteran of Ojai ACT, is well-cast as the middle-aged Russell. His tender concern for his children and their futures displays the confusion of a conservative man who senses the cultural changes in ’50s America, but is helpless to stop it. 

His wife is more easygoing about their choices. Ashley Osler sustains a measured calm and cool air throughout the play, only breaking down toward the end when she reveals a painful secret to her son. Most of Katikka’s scenes are with her father and her brother, her frustration and confusion more restrained than her hotheaded and impulsive brother. 

Betsy (Amber Shea Hodge) has good rapport with Nick; her intelligence and reasonable attitude are a nice contrast to her troubled and impulsive boyfriend. It’s a shame that the playwright didn’t give her more to do.

If there is a fault in the production, it isn’t that of the director or the cast, but of playwright Gurney.

There is no definite resolution here — and perhaps that is the point. Life goes on, families struggle to cope with cultural changes they don’t always understand and cannot control. As Russell tells Nick, “I like to think that we can embrae the future without denying the past.”

The fact that “Family Furniture” is one of the first plays Ojai ACT staged after COVID-19 forced Americans to adapt to a new “norm” is a bold choice. Whether or not that was Eubanks’ intention, the play’s characters reflect the changes in 2020 and 2021, as Americans discuss and argue cultural and political issues that divide and unify us. In that sense, repairing old furniture can be seen as a choice to embrace the past, and the safety and security it represents. 

“Family Furniture” is also Eubanks’ final production at Ojai ACT as a director. 

A veteran director, playwright and actor in Ojai for decades, Eubanks shares his love for theater and Ojai ACT as his second home. His selection of Gurney’s play reflects his similar love for families: “Family is everything. Through shifts of events, families are held by taproots, even as the other roots sprout laterally to find new ground.” 

Those of us who know and have worked with Tom are saddened to see him go, and wish him well as he puts down roots in new ground. We know his future projects will be just as relevant, and as profound as the works he staged here, and at other Ventura County theaters. We will miss him.





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