Assembling an oral history of a family can be an engaging and enlightening project. But turning such material into a stage event can be a mixed blessing, as demonstrated by the Ensemble Theatre's production of The Carpetbagger's Children.
This script by Horton Foote elegantly covers the history of the Thompson family, which is headed by a Civil War Union soldier who's moved his clan to Harrison, Texas. The term for people such as this family was "carpetbaggers" — northerners who moved south after the strife, to capitalize on that tumultuous new culture.
Set in a free-floating time period, the play is delivered in separate monologues by three aging Thompson sisters, who recollect and reflect on the past, often sharing different perspectives on the same events.
Cornelia is the brains of this tribe, entrusted by their dying father with the vast family estate, which he acquired through some apparently shady tax liens as the county treasurer. In this role, Hester Lewellen is beautifully understated, evidencing both submerged pain and subtle sarcasm as she discusses dealing with her addled mother, loser brother, deceased sister, and a lost love.
As the rebel, Grace Ann ran away with an undesirable chap and was cut off from the family, only reappearing at the father's funeral. Lissy Gulick shows glimpses of Grace Ann's spirit, but it seems more muted than it should be.
The third sibling is Sissy, a woman who happily admits she "always liked being the baby." It was her singing that kept their aged mother calmed down. Shallow but sensitive, Sissy is fully embodied by the perennially elfin Mary Jane Nottage. Although her crooning isn't quite as ethereal as it might be, Nottage perfectly captures the essence of this simple, well-meaning woman.
Directed with tender focus by Lucia Colombi, the production is evocative, but never fully overcomes the structural problem of three characters who, sadly, are never allowed to interact with each other onstage.
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