Three sisters wrestle with their famous novelist father’s legacy, their complicated lives, and their love/hate relationships with each other. We, the audience, are onlookers to this complex cacophony of affection, stinging barbs and undying support. As one sister says of another, “I love her too! I just. Wish I liked her more.”
Melissa Ross brings to New York another female-driven ensemble piece, but unlike her recent play Nice Girl, Of Good Stock covers more conventional territory. The production, directed by Lynne Meadow, has some touching moments about family, love, and marriage, but it skates along on the surface and the emotional payoffs come far too late.
Jess (Jennifer Mudge) is celebrating her 41st birthday and has asked her two younger sisters to join her at the family home on Cape Cod. Celia (Heather Lind) is the free-spirit baby of the family who is bringing a new boyfriend, Hunter (Nate Miller), home for the first time. Amy (Alicia Silverstone) is the high-maintenance middle sister who is planning the wedding of the century to Josh (Greg Keller). Jess’s husband, Fred (Kelly AuCoin), is trying to help Jess get ready for the party and celebrate this personal milestone for her at a time when they are struggling as a couple. As the person who raised her little sisters when their mother died quite young, Jess is having a hard time focusing on herself and this birthday is a difficult one for her.
Each sister is at a crossroads in their lives but even in adulthood they quickly fall into their old childhood patterns. They are in a constant loop of avoidance, explosion, hard truth, and reluctant forgiveness. Their fights, spats, or explosive emotions often result in dramatic exits (which the self-aware play makes great fun of at one point). But it also leaves the men in these sisters’ lives as bench-warmers in a game they will never fully get to play in.
The men feel a bit like the audience’s proxy (and their observational roles are made much more substantial by the great cast). We don’t know what it is like to grow up with a famous parent or how their father’s behavior impacted on the lives of these sisters exactly, but we see through these men’s eyes these women who are loved, admired, and at times given space to be a little crazy. But it is with the knowledge that we will never quite fully understand the sisters’ feelings, behavior, and reactions to each other. They were a dysfunctional unit, but a unit nonetheless, long before any of these partners came along.
Family can bring out the worst in us (and so it does here at times) but with family you love each other anyway. Ross’s play does not always succeed at making the case for both parts of this dichotomy. The teasing and needling within the sister universe is not always probative, funny, or compelling for the audience. Once the sisters, with the help of an expensive bottle of whiskey, stop fighting with each other and start fighting for each other, the play finds some genuine emotion but it was perhaps too long a road to that moment.
The deepest, most meaningful moment comes from Jess and Fred addressing their relationship. All along their dynamic gets flickers of stage time but is then sidelined when the sisters blow in and drag focus – which is too bad. Jess and Fred seem like fully realized characters who keep getting distracted by the slightly less fleshed out siblings. In the finale, Kelly AuCoin’s gut-wrenching and fiercely loving reaction is exquisite. All the layers of his character’s complicated feelings for his wife flash across his face in that moment. Mudge has the harder job of balancing her character’s external cheeriness for the benefit of everyone else and her internal personal struggles. Her character is so internalized that it felt like only in her scenes with AuCoin did we get the opportunity for her to be herself and see what was really going on, and that’s when she blossomed. Keller has a generally thankless role as the dickish, rich fiancé but in one particular scene he really gets to dig into his character’s ennui: it’s a glorious moment.