Roots and Hoots

Like proverbial apples, twigs don’t fall far from the family tree. Traits and tics both good and bad get passed down generation after generation, like heirlooms with chromosomes. In the American Heartland Theatre’s production of George Furth’s Twigs, a cranky old lady and her three grown daughters prove that the adage “like mother, like daughter” has life beyond its roots as a cliché.

Vicki Oleson is up to the task of personifying all four of them in this mostly comedic scan of an estrogen-heavy family over two days in November, circa 1971. Oleson is ably supported by James Wright and Jim Korinke, who, respectively, play four and three characters as well. These scenes are played sequentially, the actors stamping each role with distinct personality.

Nevertheless, the show is an enjoyable photo album, similar to a collection of pungent and humorous short stories. Emily is a spunky widow who has moved back to the town where she grew up. Though she’s been single for only a couple of years now, she’s developed a streak of independence that addles Frank (Wright), the owner of the moving company. For all her pluck (and apparent superhero strength — in one scene, she seems to be toting a refrigerator on her back), she’s not invulnerable to the possibility of companionship.

In the first act’s second scene, which features Emily’s sister, Celia, Furth drops all pretenses that everything is going to be farcical. Celia is a military wife whose mental health is fragile at best, and she’s not helped by an impatient husband, Phil (Korinke), and his old friend, Swede (Wright). All of the women in the family have a tendency to rattle on, but here it seems that only the right chemicals would quiet her. And Phil’s violent temper and increasingly drunken demeanor hint that he may have occasionally tried to smack the chatterbox out of her. The scene crackles with the potential of something violent and hideous.

Act Two jumps back to comedy and, in the first scene, dead-on humanity. Oleson plays the eldest sister, Dorothy, who is married to Wright’s Lou. They’re a loving couple who refuse to celebrate anniversaries (here, the 25th) for fear that something wicked will mar their happiness. Their nitpicking and nagging are old hat by now — they’re like a couple of vaudevillians whose act is familiarly well-honed. The show concludes rather broadly with the sisters’ parents, Ma and Pa (Oleson and Korinke, emulating Tim Conway’s decrepit Mr. Wiggins character from The Carol Burnett Show), where we get a glimpse of the origin of the species.

All of the technical details aid tremendously in separating the playlets. Paul Hough’s direction finds the right degrees of comedy and poignancy. Gary Mosby’s miraculous set design evokes four different kitchens, rearranged in the brief moments between scenes. Though Jennifer Myers Ecton’s costumes could have come from an afternoon at the thrift store, they’re in sync with where the characters are emotionally and on the calendar.

Categories: A&E, Stage