The regional premiere of AUCTIONING THE AINSLEYS—playwright Laura Schellhardt’s foray into the Pop psychology of familial dysfunction, memories, and the lingering significance of personal possessions—is given an engaging design and an enlightening dramaturgical explication by the talented team at People’s Light & Theatre Company. What shines through in the production and highlights the titular family’s estrangement from each other and the play’s underlying premise on the meaning and feelings we attach to personal memorabilia is the artistry of the set (Luke Hegel-Cantarella), props (Sarah Pierce), costumes (Anne Kennedy), sound (Karin Graybash), and lighting (Dennis Parichy), which serve as psychological, emotional, and neurological triggers.
Ainsley matriarch Alice (Carla Belver) is suffering from dementia and nearing death, so she procures the services of the young Arthur (Brian Lee Huynh) to record her memoirs and to oversee the sale of the family auction house and estate. Her four adult offspring—three of whom still live at home and all of whom work for the auction business—haven’t seen her for fifteen years, since she retreated to the attic and only communicates with them via intercom. They all have names beginning with A and, she notes, still behave like overgrown children (go figure!).
Under Abigail Adams’ direction, the ensemble ably distinguishes the disparate disturbed personalities: Avery (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), the oldest of the siblings and the one who left, is the angry fast-talking traveling auctioneer with a painful gimmick; Annalee (Teri Lamm) handles the filing, accounting, and social relations with the clients, but is incapable of having a relationship of her own; Amelia (Julianna Zinkel) is in charge of grouping individual objects into auction lots, so bases her theory of human matchmaking on complementary possessions; and sole son Aiden (Jesse Pennington), who hates all the “clutter” and “junk,” lives with minimal possessions and does the restoration and “destoration” (faux distressing) of the items they sell only because they’d stay in the house if they weren’t auctioned off.
But the characters in this “dark comedy” are more unlikeable than funny, more damaged than quirky, and more devastated than eccentric, and considering the dramatic secrets of their childhood that are slowly revealed but too quickly resolved, there is nothing humorous about their cliché-ridden story or believable about its pat conclusion, which seems impossibly optimistic, trite, and insincere. Schellhardt’s writing about the combative protagonists is often more caricatural than comical, their neurotic behavior is overly predictable and redundant (Aiden, when he hears that Arthur is a collector, repeatedly calls him not by his name, but by a series of synonyms for collectibles), and their speech is stilted and contrived (filled with such cloying platitudes as “We don’t sell objects, we sell life,” “There are no small lives,” and, in Annalee’s filing system, “M for Missed opportunities, R for Roads not taken, and W for a Wasted life”).
Despite the play’s straddling of comedy and tragedy, while never fully realizing either, the concept is compelling and the company’s design team gives it aesthetic life. Flashes of light and sound indicate the short circuits in Alice’s mind, as Alzheimer’s erases her memories. Telling fashions worn by the characters conform perfectly to their unique personalities and idiosyncrasies. The all-important props contrast the orderly arrangement of the vintage heirlooms, antiques, and keepsakes with the chaos in the Ainsleys’ lives and their ability to deal better with inanimate items than with fellow humans. And the historicizing multilevel set indicates the isolation of the family members within their shared house and their desperate need to free themselves from the past and all of its tangible reminders. But can divesting themselves of things truly obliterate all the damage done by people? [Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] October 14-November 8, 2015; peopleslight.org.