Monday, March 12, 2012

‘Toys in the Attic’ is an up-close look into dark family dynamics

Leena Devlin, Deborah Stimson-Snow and Andrea Frassoni
By Cheryl Thornburg
  There is nothing playful about Lillian Hellman’s “Toys in the Attic,” the current production at the Tri-County Performing Arts Center. It is a dark family drama filled with complex, eccentric characters and long-buried secrets.
John Jerbasi and Elise D'Avella
   The title refers to a southern term for crazy.  Think “bats in the belfry” or “having a screw loose.” There are quite a few characters in this show with a screw loose, which makes it an actor’s dream – and challenge.
  At the heart of this family are two spinster sisters, Carrie and Anna Berniers who have set aside their own lives and dreams to repeatedly bail out their younger brother, Julian, whose gambling and grand schemes always seem to turn out badly. When he unexpectedly returns home to New Orleans with his fragile, childlike bride, Lily, events are set in motion that will change many lives forever.
  The older, practical sister, Anna, who tries to hold the family together, is played by Leena Devlin with a sincerity that makes the long-suffering Anna sympathetic to the audience.
   Andrea Frassoni plays Carrie, the more ethereal of the sisters, who plays the piano, speaks French and talks of traveling to Europe.  Underlying her gentile demeanor is a selfish, manipulative woman who does what it takes to get what she wants. Frassoni gives a masterful performance, gradually exposing her underlying motivations and delivering a chilling performance in the final act.
Elise 'D'Avella, Deborah Stimson-Snow and Lee Leagiton
    The rakish Julian is played with flair by John Jerbasi.  His Julian is exuberant and charming as he returns home with lots of money and presents to celebrate a mysterious success.
  His flamboyant style is the perfect contrast to Elise D’Avella as his meek, neurotic and insecure wife, Lily.  D’Avella’s Lily is so pale and frail, she seems about to fall apart whenever Julian is not there to reassure her.
   Her insecurity and paranoia are especially obvious in her scenes with her mother, the wealthy Albertine Prine, played to cool perfection by Deborah Stimson-Snow.  Their relationship is strained, at best, and the interaction between the two creates a palpable tension.
Lee Leagiton and Deborah Stimson-Snow
   In addition to the family drama, there are overtones and references to racism throughout the play.  The prim and proper Albertine is in a long-term relationship with a black man that she attempts to hide publicly by referring to him as a chauffer, but no one is fooled.
  Henry, her paramour, is played by Lee Leagiton. His Henry is compassionate and dignified as he seems to understand the relationships better than those directly involved.
   Rounding out the cast as various delivery men are Jabbar Wright, Philip Seader and Carl Durr.
   Director Neal Newman has staged this production in-the-round, giving the uncanny sense of eavesdropping on the very private actions and conversations of those involved. It is a major challenge for the actors and they more than meet that challenge, creating uncomfortable situations and complicated relationships that are compelling to watch.

  “Toys in the Attic” runs through March 25 at the Tri-County Performing Arts Center, 245 E. High St, in Pottstown. Performances run Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m.  Tickets range from $13 to $21 and may be purchased at or at the door the night of the show if available.  There are discounts for groups of 10 or more.  Check the website, or call the theater at 610-970-1199 for more information.


Photos by John Daggett


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