All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Laura Schellhardt’s quirky comedy, about a quirky, insular family of five taking stock of their individual histories, talents, and character traits before moving, per force, to the next phase of their lives, is a sweet curiosity that delightfully engages for its amusing duration.
The Ainsley matriarch, Alice, aware she is dying, decides to bequeath the Midwest auction house that has sustained her family to an estranged oldest daughter she knows will be irrevocably disposed to sell it and let her comfortably nesting siblings, now near or in middle age and firmly set in their eccentric ways, fend for themselves in a wider world for which none of them thinks she or her is prepared.. While awaiting both her demise and her commanding daughter’s arrival, Alice works with an amanuensis, the superefficient, perceptive Arthur, fourth in a line of temps from a clerical agency and the first to please Alice, to catalog her life as she might catalog an estate. Each of her four children is also examined as if she or he was an object assessed for bid and groomed to attract the highest price. Schellhardt sometimes stretches the limits of her conceit, but she also provides something constantly interesting for her audience to take in as she makes a warm but firm case that people, like acquired possessions, should move on to where they might be useful instead of staying where they are no longer needed. or worse, are vegetating. Alice believes three of her children are too rooted to the auction house and the property on which it sits and is determined, in an act of parental wiliness more than maternal love, to rock their complacency and make them experience more and test their well developed talents in a bigger marketplace.
Alice’s strategy will be not be accepted as good news once it is announced at a rare family meeting in the matriarch’s office. The Ainsley children, each cozy in the success of the family business, have been able to indulge themselves with lifestyles that suit them. One, Annalee, is the ultimate organizer who catalogs and prices everything and assigns an item both a value and a place in the Ainsley’s overall inventory. She is constantly filling in price tags and attaching related papers. Her mother’s symbol for is a stapler, a tool Teri Lamm will use in a hilarious way during one sequence of Abigail Adam’s production.
Another child, Amelia, is the arranger who takes the items the Ainsleys will auction and groups them, sometimes polishing and sometimes tarnishing them, to create the greatest appeal to the bidding public. Alice’s symbol for her is a kettle, not a teapot but a kettle, because Amelia is always stewing or brimming over something. The lone son, Aiden, gay and upset because he has been abandoned by his partner, lives in almost monklike isolation and minimalism. As Alice’s scribe, Arthur, also gay and attracted to Aiden, notes the boy’s apartment doesn’t have to chair let alone any other comfort or nicety that says company is welcome. He is content to prepare items for sale, read, and keep to himself. His mother denotes him with an empty slate because he is so unfulfilled and so confused about the difference between clutter and living amid favorite objects that leaven one’s life.
The rebellious Ainsley daughter, Avery, fled the family following her harshly insistent father’s death and conducts itinerant auctions throughout the U.S. Avery sees everything from a rope of hemp to a rope of pearls as an item to be sold and passed on to the highest bidder. She views people in the same way. They aren’t much good if they stagnate. They have to touch and be touched by the world.
Only Avery has had that experience, so a lot of the drama in “Auctioning the Ainsleys” is seeing how ready the home-entrenched siblings are to thrive elsewhere if Alice proceeds with her intention to leave all to Avery, and Avery unsentimentally sells the 1892 Ainsley dwelling, auction hall, and carriage house where Amelia lives, and evicts the others Or at least renders them unable to stay put where they are.
Schellhardt’s is a story of exposing what’s within an individual and works on the premise that all items, even some that are discarded, move on to their next purpose in a new setting. Abigail Adams’s cast at People’s Light, led by the estimable Carla Belver, do a fine job in delineating their characters and reacting to the pronouncements and situations that face.
Belver is a canny Alice. While her husband was alive, she conveniently ignored his badgering the children into excellence, sometimes by making them do a task beyond endurance, sometimes by corporal punishment and more. Mr. Ainsley, whose name begins with an “A’ like his wife’s and children’s, was a rough teacher who demanded excellence and accepted nothing less whatever his lessons did to the individual Ainsley psyches. He was especially hard on Avery who has not forgiven her father for his coldness and raps on her skull with his gavel and who recognizes too many of his traits in herself to exist easily in her own skin. Since her husband’s death, Alice has separated herself from her children. She remains in her third-floor sanctuary, looking at the stapler and other symbols that represent her child, and communicates with her family via an intercom, most of the time giving orders or expressing an opinion, sometimes summoning the Annalee, Amelia, and Aiden en masse for a major announcement. This has been the way of the Ainsley world for 15 years. Belver conveys Alice’s contentedness with her arrangement. She shows neither warmth nor disdain for her brood. Instead she greets them with an amused, knowing look in her eye and total emotional equanimity.
The children, in their way, have been Alice’s entertainment. She has watched them develop their individual skills and implode into their individual habits and tics. She has found the process interesting and can talk to her children without the least bit of sentimentality or tinge of rancor. Belver’s Alice is self-possessed and on top of her game. Now that she’s found a worthy assistant in Arthur, she can tell him about her feelings and designs. To her children, she shows a different kind of coldness from the brusque dismissal practiced by her husband. She is matter-of-fact and direct exuding no fondness or affection. She offers respect while coolly, and sunnily, showing how well he knows all the quiddities of each of her offspring. Belver’s Alice is a model of intelligent observation. She someone who doesn’t miss a trick and knows how to put together the evidence she’s so calmly collected to create a sharp and accurate assessment of all of her children. She even knows how to bait them, as we see when she gives them all a personal box mementoes, key items of their individual lives. Each box also includes a price tag, one their father gave each of them to show his calculation of their separate worth.
These touches, the symbols Alice uses to recall her unseen children, the material she put in their boxes — Aiden’s is empty. — and the inclusion of the humiliating price tags, show Schellhardt’s keen attention to detail and her ability to elicit laughs from the truly funny while deriving pathos from it as well. We are as amused as Alice at the “gifts” she bestows on her children, but we can also empathize with the Ainsley siblings as we the effect those artfully chosen mementoes have.
Schellhardt is a master at making the convoluted look simple, and the simple speak volumes. She has written a complex, thought-provoking comedy that entertains effortlessly because of the sensibility Schellhardt gives each sequence and because she has a grand knack for writing a crackling line that will have you giggling or guffawing in turn. Those Ainsleys are auctioneers. They have to be quick of tongue and adept at language. This turns them into a witty bunch who can turn phrases with the best.
Brian Lee Huynh is especially impressive as Arthur, the neutral secretary, who goes about his business with class and poise while also gaining an affection for the Ainsleys, especially the lonesome Aiden, to whom he feels kinship and attraction.
Huynh is a marvel of decorum. Looking relaxed yet formal in his business suit and tie, he sense Alice’s humor immediately and builds a swift rapport with her and the Ainsley children. Huynh accentuates Arthur’s competence and honesty. He knows Arthur is more than Alice’s courier. He’s her representative, and Huynh plays him with easygoing authority that conveys he speaks for the person in charge.
Mary Elizabeth Scallen defies years, looking as if she has not aged one jot since her first appearance at People’s Light in an earlier century. She is uncompromising as Avery, refusing to let anything get in the way of truth or purpose. She and Teri Lamm’s Annalee are particularly good in a scene in which Annalee knows of Avery’s revulsion to the deceased Ainsley pere and anything associated with him, a revulsion so profound she can’t enter the space he once occupied, a space that is now Annalee’s office with all Dad’s furniture in place. Annalee uses that office as a refuge, especially the pater’s old desk, now hers, towards which she knows Avery has a pathologically superstitious aversion. Annalee defiantly clutches that desk challenging Avery to come in her office to take it and display it with the rest of the detritus comprised within the Ainsley inventory. But Avery, ever the resourceful survivor, musters the courage and moxie to get past her neuroses, realize her father’s dead, and the office is just an office, and fulfill her business there. Scallen is excellent in this scene. She shows Avery’s rare fear and possible submission, then tightens her face with practical, purposeful hardness that conveys her determination to master her hesitation and get what she wants. It’s one of many moments in which Scallen shines. She is also a master of getting the most from Schellhardt’s comically charged lines.
Jesse Pennington shows Aiden’s smug distancing techniques, one of which is calling Huynh’s Arthur by a different diminutive like “Petal” or “Cupcake” instead of his name. Lamm exudes machine-like efficiency as Annalee. Julianna Zinkel exudes independence and artistry as the creative Amelia, who lives 10 feet from her family’s manse and thinks she’s separate from the fold.
All kinds of jetsam was collected for the “Ainsley” set, and Luke Hegel Cantarella organized with the precision of Annalee, the polish of Aiden, the eye of Amelia, and the merchandizing savvy of Avery. Examining Cantarella’s set is an exhausting occupation. You must linger after the show to see it all. I have my eye on a rocking horse, a carved elephant, and an swag teapot with gold trim. I’m also taken with Alice’s desk with its pinkish legs that catch the light and make an otherwise classic object unique. Anne Kennedy has costumed perfectly. Karin Graybash’s sound design includes instances of gavels falling and illusions shattering. Also memories, as when Alice speaks nostalgically of an item and then can’t see it any more, as if the cataloguing in her memory is so complete, the actual item is rendered unnecessary. Or by letting once-important objects fade into the oblivion they’ve acquired.
“Auctioning the Ainsleys” runs through Sunday, November 8, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, October 31, Tickets range from $79 to $62 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting http://www.peopleslight.org.