Arts in Motion has been known largely for musicals, but with such shows as “Steel Magnolias” they have dipped their toe into dramatic work. Now with “Ordinary People” they are taking a cannon ball into the deep end of heavy drama.
“Ordinary People,” which opened Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is running Thursday through Saturday for the next two weeks, is a domestic drama based on Judith Guest's novel about the disintegration of an affluent suburban family in the awake of the death of one son and the attempted suicide of their remaining son Conrad (Ged Owen). This is a play that digs deep into raw emotions and is a powerful study in how people deal with tragedy.
Guest's novel was also turned into a critically and commercially successful film in 1980 starring Timothy Hutton as Conrad, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as his parents and Judd Hirsch as his psychiatrist. The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Hutton.
This is a lofty legacy to step into and Arts in Motion's production directed by Glenn Noble does it justice even if it doesn't quite achieve greatness. The production plays well on a certain level. The acting is there and the emotions present, but the show just doesn't quite go deep enough. It is hard to even pin point why. Sometimes there's just an elusive factor that can't be explained. The line between good and great is often a subtle one. In this case, what is on display is good.
Hutton may have won a supporting actor Oscar for his work as Conrad in the film, but the character is very much the lead. Owen's central performance as Conrad was going to be a make or break for this production and ultimately he does carry the show.
The play is essentially structured as a series of scenes of Conrad interacting with different people including his father (Rob Clark), mother (Pam MacDonald), psychiatrist (Tom Rebmann), friends (Kodi Barrows and Zachary Whitley), a girl he knew when in a mental hospital (Jessica Pappalardo) and a potential girlfriend (Shelby Noble).
Owen has a natural way with dialogue that doesn't feel forced, but there's a sameness to Owen's performance. There's not much variation in his line delivery throughout, just a general melancholy. This could be interpreted as harsh criticism, but in a way it is in step with the character.
Conrad is desperately trying to keep his emotions in check because any emotion, good or bad, stirs up painful memories and feelings of guilt regarding his brother's death and his attempted suicide. When Owen does have outbursts, as with a confrontation with his cold, emotionally-detached mother, they are unexpected and carry weight.
MacDonald's Beth is a fascinating character. Her way of dealing with grief is to bottle it up and to go on creating a perfect facade. She is obsessed with appearance and what people will think of her and her family. She carries a resentment towards Conrad and one of the emotional cruxes of the piece is whether she loves her remaining son.
MacDonald captures Beth's frigidness well and makes the character's self-centeredness both infuriating and as a point of sympathy. After all, she became that way because she couldn't deal with the loss of a son.
Clark is good as Calvin, a father who is trying too hard to connect with his son. Where Beth's reaction was to close off, Calvin's was to open up, but he doesn't know how and his interactions with his son are awkward and uncertain. Clark plays this awkwardness well.
The actor that brings the best out of Owen is Noble as Jeannine, a girl who has her own dark past. Dramatically, Jeannine is the character who helps Conrad get away from his own problems and to empathize with someone else. Noble has a couple monologues that are quite affecting and emotionally bare.
“Ordinary People” is not an easy piece to take on and it is commendable to see Arts in Motion take on challenging material. As a company they're expanding and with growth spurts there are growing pains. This production isn't perfect, but it represents a theater company that is a work in progress. That progress is worth checking out.
Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased at the door, reserved by calling 356-5776 or online at www.artsinmotiontheater.com.