Review of Affluence

Written by Chicago dramatist Steven Peterson, Affluence won the 2013 Julie Harris Playwriting Award. The time is set in 2010; it’s the day after Christmas and the Woodley family matriarch, Namoo, is on her deathbed. But the process has become too slow and uncertain, particularly for the heir to the position of family matriarch, Jean Woodley – Namoo’s domineering and ruthless daughter-in-law. Why? Because, due to a complicated tax arrangement, if Namoo (a bastardization of the word grandmother) dies before January 1st, the family will be left a fortune of twelve million dollars. If she departs after the start of the New Year, the fortune will be much less than the heirs want to accept.

That’s the set-up for this dark, dark comedy now in its world premiere at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40. Directed by Larry Eisenberg with a focus on naturalism and with high production values (kudos to set designer Jeff G. Rack and costumer Michele Young), Eisenberg has also assembled a cast that is up to the challenge of this cruel comedy.

Lloyd Pedersen plays Robert Woodley, the son of Namoo and chief of family finances. And though he is the direct inheritor of all that Namoo will be passing on, Robert is no match against the influence of his greedy wife, Jean. Pedersen exudes the conflict inherent within himself. His passive-aggressive tendencies are understandable under the unyielding demands of his spouse. Robert is torn between the future of the family wealth and loyalty to his dying mother.

Jean, performed with daring abandon by the consummate Rhonda Lord, is not merely a money grabber; she’s also a victim of debilitating headaches. So painful is this affliction that Jean has been convicted of pilfering pain medication from a clinic as well as from her mother-in-law.

Robert and Jean are parents to two young adult children – Arthird and Beanie – sobriquets for the male and female offspring, respectively. These characters are portrayed with appropriate rivalry by Justin Huff and Ilona Kulinska, with each adding a unique combination of energy and complexity to the proceedings. Moreover, there’s Namoo’s caretaker, Inez, dimensionally characterized by Christine Uhebe. She’s torn between her obligations as a caregiver to Namoo and her future as part of the Woodley family configuration. What’s more, Inez is romantically and surreptitiously involved with Arthird.

Like the jowly Godfather who infuses every fiber of the celluloid in that classic film even when he’s not on screen, the character of Namoo informs the action of this play. As performed by Nan Tepper, we not only experience the power of this stage veteran, we also sympathize with her plight and understand her pluck.

Affluence is a play with relevance to the socioeconomic circumstances of today. It’s a commentary on what some people will do for love and/or money. As years pass it may also serve as a marker of early 21st century sensibilities.