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STAGE REVIEW

Compelling conversations about ‘Divorce’

Matthew Maher is one of four actors who play their parents talking about their divorces. Matthew Maher is one of four actors who play their parents talking about their divorces. (T. CHARLES ERICKSON)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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WILLIAMSTOWN - For both artistic and commercial reasons, it makes sense for theater companies to tackle works that connect with the universal human experience.

Well, you can’t get much more universal than the subject of “You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce,’’ an engrossing production performed by the Civilians, and presented at Williamstown Theatre Festival through tomorrow under the direction of Anne Kauffman.

With impressive skill, the four cast members of “You Better Sit Down’’ pull off a kind of emotional backflip in this 55-minute production: They play their own parents, channeling the idiosyncratic voices of the people who raised them as the parents discuss the most intimate details of their relationships, including how their marriages fell apart while the actors were young.

Because the script was constructed from interviews that Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, and Robbie Collier Sublett conducted with their parents, the characters speak in natural, stop-and-start conversational rhythms in describing their journey from early courtship to acrimonious (or amicable) breakup.

Adding to the meta-mix is the fact that their words are directed at the child who interviewed them and is now portraying them. So one moment they freely blurt out admissions or opinions; the next, they retreat into guarded, evasive answers or snappish replies, uncertain how much to reveal to their child.

“All I wanted to do was finally go to bed with him,’’ Beverly (Morris’s mother) says, describing the early stages of her acquaintance with Morris’s father. Then Beverly, embarrassed, stiffens into a formal posture, saying: “And this is really hard for me to talk about.’’

For the most part, the actors remain seated (in chairs from their parents’ homes) and face the audience. They stay in character throughout, making no attempt to suggest their own feelings about their parents’ divorces or the upheaval it created in their lives. But it peeks through nonetheless, as when Mary Anne, Miller’s mother, recalls that as she and her husband were getting divorced, the 5-year-old Caitlin used to curl up on the couch next to the court-appointed guardian ad litem who came to their home.

“So I think you missed something?’’ Mary Anne says in a puzzled tone. “But it was something that you never had? Because you never snuggled with your dad.’’

A weakness of “You Better Sit Down’’ is that only one father (Maher’s) is represented onstage, which lends an inevitable one-sidedness to these marital chronicles. Miller’s father is dead and Morris’s father declined to take part, while Sublett and his father “have not been in contact,’’ according to a festival spokeswoman. Sublett plays his feisty mother, Janet, with a Texas drawl, while Maher shuttles back and forth between the personas of his father, John, and his mother, Frinde.

This real-life-as-theater approach is nothing new for the Civilians, a New York-based troupe that specializes in what the company calls “investigative theater.’’ Boston audiences got to see a fine example of their work in January, when “In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards,’’ an exploration of the controversy over a massive development proposal in Brooklyn, was performed under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.

While the focus of “You Better Sit Down’’ is personal rather than overtly social or political, glimpses of the 1960s abound. In a scene that could be straight out of Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,’’ Beverly recounts how she met her husband at a party she was throwing for Cesar Chavez at her “lovely apartment on Park Avenue.’’ Mary Anne describes her husband’s fervent opposition to the Vietnam War, adding meditatively: “When the war was over, it was almost as if he was a lost soul.’’

As described onstage, the factors in the various divorces ranged from infidelity to incompatibility to financial misconduct to a quest for a new identity to a simple sense that one had outgrown one’s spouse. None of the parents in “You Better Sit Down’’ seems to regret the decision to divorce.

Each of their personalities is distinct (Beverly’s airy narcissism is a hoot), and each story is different, but their recollections of scenes from their marriages add up to at least a partial portrait of a generation that sought to rewrite the rulebook when it came to matrimony. John casually mentions that he and Maher’s mother lived together before they were married. Later, prefacing his remark with “I hope this doesn’t, you know, send you to the psychiatrist,’’ he says he was adamant that the couple continue to have sex even after they had agreed to split up, and even though she was having an affair with another man. “And she said, ‘Sure. Whatever.’ I mean, we were, after all, both socialists,’’ John says. “We did not sweat the small stuff.’’

Yet it is John, in a less glib mode, who poses the far-from-small-stuff query that resonates throughout (and beyond) “You Better Sit Down’’: “So I guess the main question is why do people fall in and out of love?’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com

YOU BETTER SIT DOWN: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce

Conceived by Jennifer R. Morris

Written by Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Morris, Janice Paran, and Robbie Collier Sublett

Directed by Anne Kauffman

Sets, Mimi Lien. Lights, Ben Stanton. Costumes, Sarah Beers.

Sound, Leah Gelpe.

Production by: the Civilians.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival,

Nikos Stage, Williamstown.

Through tomorrow. Tickets $33-$35, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org