The World Premiere of AFFLUENCE by playwright Steven Peterson is a pitch-dark comedy that may cause one to reflect on the true meaning of wealth. The play was the winner of the 2013 Julie Harris Playwright Award of the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild, now onstage at Theatre 40 through October 20, directed by Larry Eisenberg and produced by David Hunt Stafford, their first stage collaboration in their 40 year friendship. What took you two so long to create such a fine piece of theater?
The play is set in the living room of a fine home in a fine American suburb, the week after Christmas 2010. Jeff G. Rack has again created a wonderfully rich setting, complete with all the trappings of a family who has known wealth for several generations. It is a lovely home in which you would think a family could live happily ever after.
But the fortunes of the once-wealthy Woodley family are in jeopardy due to the ravages of the most-recent Great Recession and Jean Woodley’s (Rhonda Lord, chewing the scenery with her overbearing domination of all around her) recent run-in with the law. Grandma, however, is dying and will leave her kin a bundle. But (and there’s always a but), thanks to a quirk in the estate tax laws, the Woodleys stand to gain even more millions from Grandma (Nan Tepper who shines in the role) if she dies before Midnight on New Year’s Eve: Enough millions, in fact, not only to erase their debts, but also to return them to financial abundance.
Of course the entire family is well aware of the situation, but it is her son Robert Woodley, Jr. (Lloyd Pedersen, Jean’s ultimate milquetoast husband) who stands to gain the most if his mother simply succumbs before the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2010. Will Grandma simplify things by cooperatively dying on time? Or if she is still clinging to life as the hour of twelve approaches, might someone in the Woodley household be motivated to give her a shove over the edge into the Abyss? Grandma is terminal, after all.
From the very beginning, it is very apparent that Jean is at fault for much of the family’s hard times. Suffering from constant headaches and in need of narcotics which provide her only relief, Jean gets caught stealing pills from Grandma’s co-residents at her hospice. Then she furthers her problems by getting caught trying to show Grandmas how to take her pills – presumably by taking them herself. With the possibility of jail hanging over her, costly legal fees threaten to wipe out the family fortune. Rhonda Lord so effectively portrays Jean in all her glorious menacing ways that you can’t help but think the family would be much better off without her around.
Grandchildren Rob and Barbara (fighting against their monikers Arthird and Beanie), are played by Justin Huff and Ilona Kulinska, both trying to take steps to forward their lives. They both sincerely love their Grandma and place her love far above her fortune. Rob has fallen in love with and proposed to Grandma’s caretaker Inez (the luminous Christine Uhebe) who has accepted. Just as his mother Jean dominates her husband, it is clear that Rob needs a strong woman to look after him and Inez is perfect for him. The Woodley men may be set to inherit the family fortune but they certainly do not know how to succeed on their own.
Beanie is anxiously awaiting an acceptance letter from the college of her choice, one far away from her family home which she so adamantly wants to leave forever. With her drive, no doubt she will succeed on her own. And given the way the family fortune seems to be going, it may be her only choice.
Huff and Kulinska will most certainly remind you of your own siblings, using games of one-upmanship to gain the upper hand, even if only for a few moments. These are two good kids, both lost in their own ways and trying to make their lives better. It is very apparent that the family fortune will not guarantee their happiness, just make their lives easier. And isn’t that the American dream?
Certainly that is true for Inez, apparently an undocumented worker, and Jean who saw dollar signs and a better life when she met Robert Jr. These two strong women have taken the steps necessary to lift themselves up into a better class of people, knowing that even if the match they have chosen is not perfect, it will certainly provide them with a better life. Jean has seen it all and become bitter but Inez is young and hopeful while accepting of the adjustments she needs to make to keep herself safe.
Each of the characters face many challenges as the New Year’s Eve deadline approaches. Partnerships are made and broken before the final outcome is revealed which is the most satisfying, although somewhat horrifying, end that will make you wonder if a family fortune can ever really guarantee happiness. Then again, it does make life somewhat easier to live, doesn’t it, making it worth hanging onto at whatever the cost. Certainly the Woodleys will take you on a most interesting ride as they attempt to figure it all out, leaving you knowing that generational affluence should never be taken for granted.
Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinkski enhances the creepiness of the Woodley home with creaking floors and a whistling wind that seems to fill the dark room with enough sinister ambiance to shake your very soul. Fight choreographer Tanya Wilkins’ guidance in creating realistic and brutal attacks between Jean and Robert generated gasps from the audience with each slap. Stage manager Don Solosan expertly kept the scene breaks short as he re-set props, and it was lovely to see him slowly escorting Nan Tepper in for her final scene with loving concern for her well-being.
Director Eisenberg is to be commended for keeping the action moving along at a steady pace and playwright Steven Peterson for keeping us guessing at how the self-absorbed Woodley clan will finally solve their financial woes.