Playwright A.R. Gurney himself owns up to the problem with his Ancestral Voices in its opening monologue. He (the narrator) says that the work began as a play but laments that it covered too much geography, and time, to fit on a stage. He tried to write it as a novel but, he says, there was too much dialogue to work as prose. So he made it what it is: a seated reading/spoken oratorio for five actors. Sad to say, this third form is probably the least successful of all.
Maybe Gurney lost sight of his own highly honed theatrical instincts because of the deeply personal nature of the story: Ancestral Voices feels like the most autobiographical of all his work. Eddie, the Gurney doppelganger, is a boy in his early teens in Buffalo in the mid-1930s, with a ringside seat to the divorce of his grandmother from his beloved grandfather and her remarriage to a man nobody in the family likes. In the '30s, among Buffalo's moneyed elite, divorce never happens -- most especially to a woman of Eddie's grandmother's age, who, in the years that follow, is shunned by the society in which she lives.
Writing it out like that, I can't say why Gurney thought it wouldn't work as a play. Or, more precisely, why it would be better told with five actors sitting in chairs reading from scripts. The story is one of nuance, and the subtle shift of affection and power between the characters -- all of which here, unfortunately, gets smothered by the static nature of a seated reading. If I can indulge in a little armchair psychology, maybe it's because the story is so personal that he's unconsciously chosen to make it as impersonal as possible.
Still, Gurney's far too good a writer for the evening to be without interest. The Little Lake Theatre production, under the sturdy direction of Sunny Disney Fitchett, emphasizes those plusses as much as possible. Fitchett forges a clean, intelligent reading of the work, never second-guessing Gurney's intent by going too far emotionally or junking it up with extraneous bits of "theater."
And she's helped in no small part by a strong cast, including Jill Sinatra, Bruce Crocker, Paul Laughlin and the always luminous Carol Lauck. Finally, playing young Eddie with an artistic maturity far beyond his tender years, Joe Bender does a remarkable job breathing theatrical life into this respectable if page-bound work.
Ancestral Voices continues through Sept. 22. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300.