As the stage darkens following the first scene of “Six Years,” one of the selections included in the 30th Anniversary Humana Festival of New American Plays, an audience member feels a most delicious (and sought-after, by the playwright) emotion: anticipation. The necessary elements are established in the central relationship: intensity, mystery, intimacy. The music and lighting have set a mood. Yet by the first few beats of the second scene, one realizes the essential problem of this play. It simply needs more definition.
“Six Years,” written by Sharr White, is the story of Phil and Meredith Granger (Michael J. Reilly and Kelly Mares, respectively) over the span of their 20-year marriage. The beginning of the play finds Phil returning to St. Louis in 1949 after serving in World War II. Hearing nothing from him for six years, Meredith nervously confronts and eventually pleads with the reluctant, obviously disturbed Phil to give the relationship a chance. The play then revisits the two every six years.
With a bit more time spent in a workshop, White’s play could conceivably turn into a solid story. But it struggles as it is now. Under the weight of too many issues, the focus is split so that nothing gets resolved — or when it does, as in the relationship between Phil and Meredith, it feels contrived.
For example, in the second scene, Meredith, completely evolved from the shaking, timid young girl she was in the previous scene, emerges almost “Godfather”-like. Sure, such a change is plausible over the course of six years, but there’s very little evidence as to why she became such. Is it solely because of Phil’s lingering war distress? Phil’s not withdrawn; the audience sees him as a man given to violent outbursts, so is it really likely that, upon catching Meredith signing a business deal he’d moments earlier viciously decried, he’d simply slink away? And if so, it’d be much more interesting for the play to veer that direction and fully explore that course. Instead, it meanders around but never quite settles down to discuss adultery, war trauma, the intricacies of marriage and children, and even the Vietnam War.
The supporting actors steal the show in this production. Frank Deal (Jack Muncie) kept me riveted, and Harry Bouvy (Tom Wheaton) is so sincere he garners sympathy even as he ventures into dishonorable territory. Stephanie Thompson instills her brief appearance as Dorothy with sass and depth.
Perhaps Brooks should have directed his leads (Mares and Reilly) that arguing takes on more forms than just yelling at the top of one’s voice — it’s grating. Although it’s unfair to completely blame the actors, Reilly’s Phil almost falls into the realm of pitiful, and Mares’ Meredith is so unforgiving and acerbic that she becomes just plain unlikable. That said, Reilly has a natural, relaxed presence onstage, and Mares does nice work with her vocal cadences.
It’s a surprise to see this sort of work-in-progress at a world-renowned event. “Six Years” is not a bad play, but at Humana, one expects more … at least the occasion to give a truly deserved standing ovation.
By REBECCA HAITHCOAT