William Inge’s ‘Off the Main Road’ gets staged at last
But the ‘lost’ play, in its world premier performance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, doesn’t measure up to the playwright’s best works
By Joseph Whelan
Six years ago some previously unproduced plays by William Inge were found in the library of a community college in Inge’s hometown of Independence, Kansas. Among the 25 or so works in various stages of development was the complete full-length play Off the Main Road, recently given its world premiere production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with a stellar cast that includes Emmy Award-winner Kyra Sedgwick and Estelle Parsons, directed by Evan Cabnet.
Literary discoveries of this nature generate understandable excitement (for example, Go Set a Watchman) with the prospect of hearing afresh a master’s voice after a decades-long absence, or better still, with the hope of encountering a previously unknown masterpiece. That is not quite the case here. Off the Main Road will likely never be considered the equal of Inge’s four major plays: Bus Stop, Picnic (Pulitzer Prize, 1953), Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. It is a confused and confusing work, almost like two plays badly stitched together. There is a quiet, meditative play about the complicated emotional entwining of love and need and the need to be needed, and a clumsy, overwrought melodrama that batters its way onto the stage and sends the proceedings spiraling out of control.
At the center of the play is Faye Garrit (Sedgwick), a fortyish, St. Louis socialite who, when we first meet her, is on the run from her alcoholic and abusive husband, Manny, a former star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. (Though written in the early 1960s, the play references familiar contemporary concerns: spousal abuse, coddled sports stars, teen-age suicide, and class prejudice.) Manny is Faye’s second husband and not the father of Faye’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Julia.
As the play begins, Faye and Julia have taken refuge in a rustic cabin at a small resort on a lake. In the wee hours of that morning, Manny returned home and beat Faye in a drunken, jealous rage. “He’ll kill me sometime. I know that now. He’ll kill me,” she tells Julia as she conceals a black eye with make-up and steadies her shaking hands with bourbon and a little red pill. Make-up won’t cover what has happened, Julia tells her mother.
Julia is wise beyond her years and much more self-possessed than her mother. Her fear, of course is that, despite her mother’s protests to the contrary, Faye will return to Manny. She has good reason to fear. By her own admission, Faye cannot resist Manny. “I dread facing him again,” Faye confesses. “My heart will crumble into little pieces.” When Manny shows up — all repentance and contrition and full of “I dunno what it is comes over me at times” and “I swear to God, you’re the one thing, I care anything about at all, and I wouldn’t wanna hurt ya for the world” — Faye forgives him. When he moves to the door to exit, though, she lets him go. Then she collapses in tears, consoled by Julia.
“Human love is a frightening thing,” says Julia at one point, and elsewhere Manny notes, love “can rile me up more’n anything else in the world. . .” Throughout the play, Inge reiterates in various guises the power love exerts over his characters. In this play, to be in love is to be enthralled: a captive, spellbound, enslaved. As such, it drives its victims to extremes, and this is the dangerous curve where Off the Main Road careens over the edge and into a melodramatic ditch. An on stage murder reveals nothing we don’t really already know. A disturbing seduction scene comes perilously close to rape and is so awkward it drew laughter from the audience. (I suspect Inge never intended it to do so.)
An attempted suicide fizzles as a climactic turning point and does not support the pivotal revelation for which it is the catalyst. The more extreme the action, I found, the less effective the play. This is mostly because the dramatic core of the play resides in the difficult personal decision Faye must make now that her life has been upended. This is where the real interest lies, and Inge is at his best in this play when he addresses it. By piling on dramatically loaded and violent external events, Inge succeeds only in distracting us and shifting the focus away from Faye’s internal struggle. Also, instead of complicating Faye’s decision, these events undermine the credibility of the choice she eventually makes.
Where the play does succeed is in the quieter scenes, notably between Faye and Julia, and between Faye and her friend Jimmy. Here, the complexities of being in love — and what who we love says about us and how that love impacts us — comes into focus. Inge asks us to consider how much falling in love and being in love is fundamentally a matter of feeling needed. In these scenes, some of the strongest performances shine.
Notable is Mary Wiseman as Julia in a carefully calibrated performance that elucidates the tightrope children walk when navigating the misguided adults who determine their lives. Wiseman is superb in playing the truth-teller to a woman who only wants to hear what she wants to hear. What Julia withholds matters equally with what she discloses. Her subtle challenges and her quiet, patient handling of the mother who has largely neglected her but suddenly needs her give Julia an admirable strength. She is willing to sacrifice for Faye and tolerate intrusions into her personal life, but Wiseman makes clear it is Julia’s choice. She is no push-over.
Excellent, too, is Howard W. Overshown as Faye’s friend Jimmy Woodford, a sophisticated gallery owner who, as Faye puts it “doesn’t care for women.” Jimmy has been a friend since childhood and is the man Faye relies on to be there for her in times of need, be it to ease an awkward social situation or to offer company in lonely times. In Overshown’s nuanced performance, Jimmy’s own loneliness is apparent, as is his hard-won understanding of the inner strength it takes to endure life’s hardships.
“To understand the hurts that have been done us is to see all the beauty of life’s tragedy,” he tells Faye, not as a condescending dispenser of life-lessons, but as one who knows whereof he speaks.
He knows Faye, too. “I sometimes wonder if you really know anyone,” he says to her, leaving unnamed, but certainly implied, the one to whom he is speaking.
As portrayed by Sedgwick in a gallant performance, Faye is every inch the beautiful, well-coiffed, grown-up child of privilege who is used to being the center of attention. Julia, Jimmy, her mother and even strangers like Mrs. Burns (who runs the resort) orbit around her, governed by her whims and wants. Yet throughout, Sedgwick finds Faye’s vulnerability — the fear behind the façade — and smooths over her more abrasive qualities with humor. When Jimmy tells her she is “beautiful, and graceful, and charming and fun,” we believe him.
But self-indulgence has been her birth right and self-knowledge has been her blind spot. In these difficult circumstances her limitations begin to register. Those qualities Jimmy attributes to her “don’t pay off, somehow,” she realizes, and it is all too possible that her mother (played by Parsons with the right mix of comedic imperiousness and unsentimental concern) was correct when she dismissed Faye’s plan to find a job: “You won’t. You can’t. You weren’t brought up for it.”
In this way, Off the Main Road is very much a reflection of the time in which it was written, and Faye a prisoner of the time. Inge gives her very few options: Go home to mother and father, return to Manny, or what? Marry Jimmy? Fall in love again? (Which is what she says she wants.)
In the end, Faye chooses to go where she feels she is most needed — not out of a sense of nobility, but humbly, and armed perhaps for the first time in her life with an understanding of her worth as a person and not someone’s doll or debutante. On some personal level she has moved forward. Nonetheless, it must be said (spoiler alert) that a bad decision is a bad decision.
Inge adapted Off the Main Road for television in 1964. It appeared on the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater under the title “Out on the Outskirts of Town” and featured Ann Bancroft and Jack Warden. After that it disappeared.
It would not be going too far out on a limb to speculate that Inge recognized the play’s deep flaws. That said, it would be difficult as well to imagine the play receiving a better production. There is nothing in Williamstown’s effort that doesn’t strive to honor the words on the page.
The cast is solid throughout. As Manny, Jeremy Davidson successfully conveys the degree to which this former sports idol from the wrong side of the tracks has become a lost soul, now that his career is over. He is a man without a compass, ravaged by jealousy and insecurity that when fueled by alcohol turn to violent rage.
Aaron Costa Ganis as Gino tackles head-on the challenge of playing a character written to draw our disdain and disapproval. There is no attempt court sympathy for a man who knows what he wants, and will get it. Very good, too, is Daniel Sharman as Julia’s love interest, Victor Burns, the resort owner’s son.
Director Cabnet must be credited for providing clarity throughout and discovering the nuances in the quieter scenes. The design team, too, makes admirable contributions. Takeshi Kata’s set, Paloma Young’s costumes, and Ben Stanton’s lights are serviceable in the best way: appropriate and unobtrusive.
Nonetheless, a flawed play is a flawed play.
Joseph Whelan is the publications director at Syracuse Stage and an adjunct instructor in the Syracuse University Department of Drama.
What: Off the Main Road, by William Inge (world premiere)
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival 2015
Where: 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA
Director: Evan Cabnet
Performance Reviewed: 8 p.m. July 18, 2015 (production run has ended)
Time: Two hours, with one intermission