Familty ties fray in ‘Our Daughters, Like Pillars’
BOSTON – It’s a simple equation: Family = friction.
It can be like kindling when three siblings and their mother “voluntarily” spend a week together, even in the nicest of places and at a gathering which has been planned and plotted within an inch of its life.
With kindling comes sparks and then fire. And it may not be easy to put out the fires once you have started them.
A Black family from Boston, the Shaws, gathers at a country home in North Conway, N.H. in July for a week’s vacation in The Huntington’s “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” now being presented through May 8 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.
In her previous works such as “Mile Like Sugar” and Luck of the Irish” at The Huntington, Playwright Kirsten Greenidge, a Huntington Theatre Playwriting Fellow, has shown a facility for character development and the dissection of relationships; both of those skills are again in full evidence here.
Every family has a CEO of sorts, and in the Shaw family it is oldest sister Lavinia “Vinny” Shaw (Nikkole Salter), who has organized and planned the vacation as a way to see if the entire family might be able to co-exist under one roof. The ground rules include no phones, no politics or religion, and that tends to turn the focus inward, for better or worse.
Octavia Curtis Shaw (Arie Thompson), who has an unseen and seemingly hardly-missed husband named Tim, is trying to finish a book and is so welded to her laptop that she doesn’t seem engaged and is off in her own world.
Free-spirit sister Zelda makes a dramatic entrance as she drives her trailer/RV right onto the lawn of the rented home.
Zelda’s finances have been challenging for some time and there is speculation about how she obtained the $20,000 she says she paid for what she calls her “tiny home.”
The home comes equipped with a boyfriend of recent vintage named Paul King, engagingly played by Julian Parker, who seems bewildered at landing in the middle of a situation he didn’t bargain for.
Lavinia’s husband Morris Williams is a low-key, hale-fellow-well-met who chafes at his wife’s restrictions but does his best to be a loving, supportive spouse.
There are old grievances, still unresolved, and long-kept secrets, and one of the secrets has to do with one of the sisters attending a funeral service that the rest of the family boycotted. Friction ahead.
“Our Daughters, Like Pillars” was originally scheduled for March 2020 before the pandemic hit. The decision to make the play three acts with two intermissions — a total of 31/2 hours — was presumably made then and was a conscious and intentional decision by Greenidge, who explained in program notes that she didn’t want to be trapped in a traditional 90-minute format but wanted to be able to write “expansively.”
She said that one of her tasks for herself was writing this “big, sprawling thing, and have this particular family, filled with strong Black women, take up a lot of space.”
The three acts, she later explained, became a chance to have “Black actors, Black performers, and a Black playwright say: This is how much space this huge family drama takes…”
Unfortunately, as we collectively ease our way back into live theater, with attention spans shortened and viewing habits changed during the pandemic, luring audiences — many of whom skew older — into a theater to spend 31/2 hours for even the best of shows can be daunting.
And while the reason for the expansion feels just right in many areas, it seems puzzling or misplaced in others, especially when it occurs with characters such as Paul who are not one of the Shaw sisters or their mother
Paul’s long scene with Octavia when he delves into his reason for being a “freegan” doesn’t see to go anywhere.
The revelations and secrets appear almost organically in the exchange of ideas or ordinary conversations that take sudden detours.
No one is carrying a scar worse than than that of the family’s matriarch, a wizened Yvonne Shaw (Lizan Mitchell) who one day sent her late husband, Dr. Lemuel Shaw, off to work and soon found herself a single woman with a brood to raise.
The confrontation between her and am equally wonderful Cheryl D. Singleton as Missy Shaw, the younger woman who displaced Yvonne from her marriage, has some of Greenidge’s more magical moments.
The Huntington’s famed attention to detail on the production values that bring a playwright’s work to life include Marion Williams’ set that deftly blends forest and home; Jane Shaw’s sound design with its collection of country sounds such as the chirping of crickets; and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting, which captures the changing summer sun and the shadows.
“Our Daughters, Like Pillars” does not have an “Aha!” moment or a clear resolution where everything is wrapped up in a neat bow and we can clearly see the road ahead for the family.
Director Kimberly Senior is charged with keeping Greenidge’s vision moving forward and succeeds, again except for a few moments where a character’s expansion seems to be a dead end.
The skills that have made Greenidge such a well-regarded young talent have all survived the pandemic intact and are up there on the stage with an excellent cast for all to see.
The Huntington production of “Our Daughters, Like Pillars.” Written by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Kimberly Senior. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through May 8. Huntingtontheatre.org