If “lace curtain Irish” were not considered a pejorative term by some, it could be used as a thumbnail description of the family in Bill Barker’s play “Best Wishes,” which is currently enjoying a splendid revival at the Crown City Theatre in North Hollywood.
Joanne McGee and Matthew J. Williamson’s wonderfully insipid set not only drapes lace at the window, but also as a tablecloth on the dining room table, as antimacassars and doilies on all the chairs, and a decorative pillow on the rocking chair. There are fussy gadgets everywhere, including a collection of ugly perfume bottles on the breakfront, family photos on the piano and the walls, and subdued colors and lighting. It’s a powerfully evocative set that tells you much about the family that grew up there.
It’s small town Kansas in 1981, and 13 of the surviving adult children have returned home for the funeral of their 89-year-old mother. They have all achieved a moderate success and are decent and respectable people, but somehow the occasion, and the fact that they seldom see or talk to each other any more, sets off a storm of ancient resentments and personality clashes.
“Best Wishes” very much resembles the more recent “August — Osage County,” in which a scattered family returns for their father’s funeral. The characters in “Best Wishes,” however, are not as intentionally willful and vicious as those in “Osage County.”
“Best Wishes” focuses on four of the sisters and two brothers: Crystal (Nadya Starr), who appears the most moody and troubled by her mother’s death, Vera (Ann Bronston), who scurries around making dinner and trying to take care of everyone, Elda (Joanne McGee), who has returned from California and seems to have reverted to her childhood role: teasing both playfully and insidiously, and Dorie (Carol Jones), a self-righteous, church-going scold who, as the youngest, is continually demanding attention from the others.
Of the two brothers, Denny (Bill Barker) is considered a ne’er do well, even though he really isn’t, and Gil (Dana Craig), who is the oldest, assumes the role of put-upon father figure, making decisions and taking charge. Under Hollace Starr’s careful direction, they are all fleshed-out characters, individually and collectively real and sympathetic.
While there is much love almost inadvertently displayed among the siblings, and some residual good feeling and playfulness, Dorie’s terrible neediness and emotional demands tend to wear them all out. Dorie and Elda, who are only two years apart, scrape the scabs off old wounds as they begin to dismantle the family home and choose the mementoes they want from among their mother’s possessions. Vera reacts by fretting helplessly, Crystal removes herself, both physically and emotionally, and Gil launches a telling diatribe. They are all aware that this is the last time they will gather together in this house, and probably the last contact many of them will have with the others, and so a certain melancholy infuses their relationships.
While this is not a grim play — there is much family humor — the comedy highlight is Peggy Lord Chilton’s portrayal of Fanny, their mother’s oldest friend. She is a quirky, over-the-top character who fills in the small details of their mother’s final years and provides a small gift for her dead friend.
“Best Wishes” is a play that anyone who has ever been part of a family — large or small — will enjoy. It will remain onstage at Crown City Theater, on the campus of St. Matthew’s Church at 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood through May 3 (and possibly longer), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call (818) 745-8527 for information and reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.