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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Whereas Nelson's recent plays were all set abroad, Franny's Way takes place in New York's Greenwich Village, circa 1957. It's the era of Salinger and his influence is easily seen (Nelson names his title chracter after a Salinger character and has her something of a female counterpart of Holden Caulfield).
The action unfolds in a walkup apartment to which Marjorie (Kathleen Widdoes) has brought fifteen-year-old Dolly (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese) and seventeen-year-old Frannie (Elisabeth Moss) to visit their cousin Sally (Yvonne Woods) and her husband Phil (Jesse Pennington). As in Madame Melville it is structured around a narrator who introduces flashbacks. That narrator, Kathleen Widdoes, relates the story from the viewpoint of both a mature Franny and the grandmother. The grandmother-narrator segues from narration to actively participating in the story but steps aside to let Elisabeth Moss take over as young Franny. If this sounds confusing, it isn't, and the narrative-to-action-to-narrative structure does in fact create the sort of dreamlike aura that is evident in much of Nelson's writing.
Unusual, for such a low-key, mood-driven story, Franny's Way begins with a bang -- or, to be more precise, the heavy moaning and groaning of a couple having sex. It's Sally and Phil, the tenants of the dingy walkup apartment. When the moans stop and the bedroom door opens, first Phil and then Sally, emerge. Both are naked Unlike so much superfluous stage nudity, Nelson here uses it purposefully. That wordless first scene effectively establishes how contentment can turn into despair in a single shattering moment.
It is because of that opening scene tragedy and its emotionally immobilizing effect on Sally that her grandmother has decided to come for a visit, bringing Sally's cousins along as a treat as well as for Franny to see if she'd like to attend New York University after graduating from high school in the family's home town (Millbrook in Duchess Country, about a two-hour train ride from Manhattan). Things aren't all sunshine and roses for the girls either. Their father is remarried, their mother having left to move to New York. Molly still loves and wants to see her mother, while Franny is less forgiving and determined to find love as dictated by her raging hormones.
The convergence of the two problem situations -- the alienation of Sally and Phil, the motherlessness of the girls which makes Franny court sexual danger -- brings the visit of Marjorie and the girls to a hopeful ending. As I said, there aren't a lot of fireworks on the way towards that ending, but there are enough flickers to keep you involved with this little family.
Ms. Widdoes is not only the switchboard character who keeps this family connected but the actor whose performance gives the play its center. Jesse Pennington lets his frustration and pain seep through the quiet surface of Phil. The three younger women tend towards shrillness which Mr. Nelson's otherwise able direction does little to tone down. His design team serves him well. Thomas Lynch's unit set is lovingly detailed and subtly lit by Jennifer Tipton. It's neat but grungy enough to make it understandable why, the allure and excitement of Manhattan notwithstanding, not only grandma and the sisters, but also Sally and Phil, may find Millbrook preferable in the long run.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF RICHARD NELSON'S WORK
James Joyce's The Dead
Madame Melville. . .London production
Good Night Children Everywhere
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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