When Alvin Sargent distilled Judith Guest’s novel for the 1980 screenplay of “Ordinary People,” he won an Oscar by adapting it so deftly that all three members of the Jarrett family remained rounded characters. Yet even in two hours, he had to lose some of the subtleties that made the book emotionally draining.
Nancy Pahl Gilsenan’s stage version chops another half-hour off the narrative. In her hands, it becomes an almost unbroken series of crises, recriminations and confrontations, skating across the surface of an important topic – how a family copes, or doesn’t, with the death of the elder son – and fully develops only one character: Conrad, the boy who watched his brother die in a sailing accident and now has survivor’s guilt.
Wolfe Edwards gives an explosive performance as Conrad in Davidson Community Players’ season-opening drama. But the actors around him never get much chance to show what they could do if their characters had a third dimension. (Leah Wiseman stands out as his might-be girlfriend, conveying diverse feelings in their short scenes.)
Beth, the perfectionist mother (Elyse Williams), remains a shrill and selfish person throughout. Cal, the overprotective dad groping for a reconnection with his son (Bill Reilly), gets a little more stage time and nuance but not enough. Williams and Reilly labor to put across feelings the script simply hasn’t given them.
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Director Debra Baran has made interesting casting choices. Conrad’s psychiatrist has become a woman (Frances Bendert), who can more quickly establish empathy with the boy; that helps in so short a play. The parents both seem to be in their middle or late 50s, which distances them farther from their son but also makes Beth harder to understand. The Beth in book and film was supposed to be about 40; she had given birth at 21 and 22 and devoted her whole life to her kids, so her psychological fragmentation made more sense.
David Haynes’ multipurpose set quickly establishes the necessary locales and includes a curved back portion that suggests a stone memorial to fallen soldiers. In a play where one of the most important (if unseen) characters has died in action, so to speak, that’s especially apt.
The three remaining members of a prosperous, once-happy family try to recover from the death of the elder son in this Davidson Community Players production.
WHEN: Through March 15 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Armour Street Theatre, 307 Armour St., Davidson.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.