Perhaps, in a way, it is fitting that local playwright Michael McKeever named a character Aunt Ester in his screwball, wacky, yet surprisingly touching and relatable piece, "37 Postcards" now in Miami Lakes at the Main Street Playhouse.
In particular, it is fitting because the family of which she is a part likely mystifies us as much as the Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s plays. You know, the 300-something-year-old mythic spiritual healer living in the neighborhood in which Wilson grew up who is so often referenced in his plays.
Of course, Wilson created his Aunt Ester solely for serious purposes. And while McKeever’s Aunt Ester, and the rest of the characters in "37 Postcards" ultimately relay a heartfelt message, this family appears to belong institutionalized.
For instance, consider that even though this modern-day Connecticut clan admits to having attended 97-year-old “Nana’s” funeral, they clearly see her. And no, she is not a ghost and family members don’t believe they’re seeing her spirit.
By the way, this near centenarian possesses a romantic side. To be specific, she flirts dreamily on the phone with an unseen male character. Meanwhile, during other times, she's a foul-mouthed, fierce woman who uses such words as “whore.”
Indeed, although she’s some 30 years older than Violet Weston, “Nanny” would fit in quite well with the pill-popping, potty-mouthed matriarch in playwright Tracy Letts’ "August: Osage County."
Speaking of Letts’ dysfunctional family play and drugs, it’s safe to say that "37 Postcards" is a dysfunctional family play on steroids.
The Sutton family, in this darkly comic, yet sometimes heartbreakingly touching dramedy, is so eccentric, you wonder if they’ve taken some pills of their own. One character believes they’ve taken medicine that they shouldn’t have. And it’s hard to blame him for the comment.
Yet for all their eyebrow-raising wackiness, family members, particularly Evelyn Sutton and Aunt Ester (the Brewster sisters in "Arsenic and Old Lace" might spring to mind), are hardly bad, or even unlikable people. OK, maybe Nana’s an exception.
Even so, as a whole, the Suttons are sweet, humble, loving members of a family. While "37 Postcards" will likely produce tears from laughter, it’s just as likely to cause tears from sadness, poignancy and pathos.
At its heart, this play, like the countless others from the dysfunctional family genre, reminds us that as strange as they may be, families are part of people’s makeup. One cannot replace one’s family, and why would someone wish to?
As Avery Sutton says in the play about his nutty clan, “they’re a part of who I am, what I am…This is where I belong. This is where I need, no want to be.”
Besides, this play seems to ask questions such as what is the definition of “normal.” Playwright McKeever asks us to ponder other questions and themes in "37 Postcards." They include how people deal with mortality, including their own, the way in which people tend to block things which upset them from their minds, and the emotions experienced while introducing a potential spouse to family members.
And his warning is that while you can, indeed, go home again, things might have changed just a bit.
While this play deals with serious themes, it’s nevertheless daffy. And pieces falling within the dysfunctional family genre that are done well simply make for quality theater.
Why? Perhaps it’s because we recognize characters’ eccentricities in people we know or love. Another likely reason is that eccentric family members are just downright hilarious. They spill secrets, and while they might be adults, they behave like spoiled children.
In Main Street Players’ mostly fine-tuned production, director Chris D’Angelo nicely balances hilarity and heartbreak, humor and pathos.
D’Angelo coaxes deft comedic performances from the six-person cast, whose members nail comic timing and sincerity.
Credit goes to Fern Katz for keeping a straight face as Nana, who speaks some of the play’s most outrageous, risqué lines. And she does so with a sharp, cocky voice. It is one that suggests that this granny, peering behind thick, long, black glasses, is hardly grandmotherly.
Rather, she seems like a coarse woman from the street. No doubt, polish isn’t exactly one of Nana’s strengths.
However, one cannot say the same for Aunt Ester, whom Francine Birns portrays with elegance and grace. Moreover, Birns finds the kind, sympathetic side to this aunt. She is eager to welcome home her nephew, Avery, following his long absence.
Naturally, so is his mother, Evelyn, whom Lory Reyes plays with variety. Specifically, the performer demonstrates a knack for comedy as well as drama.
For instance,her face betrays a troubled look or she squirms when someone brings up an uncomfortable topic. And when Avery pushes her to the brink, Evelyn convincingly loses it, screeching in unbearable emotional pain. Daniel Llaca endows Avery with believable nervous energy and knots of tension. Llaca has opted for some big acting choices in terms of expression and body language, but it’s mostly credible, if a bit short on nuance.
Come to think of it, subtlety is practically absent from Peter Librach’s portrayal of Stanford Sutton. He’s like the uncle you haven’t seen in ages, one with unbridled enthusiasm, a jolly man who doesn’t let anyone get a word in. Clearly, Librach’s Stanford has a zest for life. He’s a loving husband and father that sad news, which surrounds him is all the more heartbreaking.
Curiously, Librach sometimes speaks with a hint of a British accent. Yet nowhere in McKeever’s script is there any reference to a United Kingdom background.
Europe, in particular France, is where Avery’s fiancé, Gillian, wishes to escape after enduring a little too much craziness. Sure, she’s a pleasant young woman, and Isidora Miranda endows her with charm and a free-spirited demeanor.
Set designer Amanda Sparhawk renders the house as cozy, spacious, neat, and with inviting colors. The home may look orderly and all, but the floor is tilted. This fact neatly symbolizes how this family is a bit, shall we say, off kilter.
McKeever displays his knack for penning plays that are funny, but with pathos, in the same vein Neil Simon's later works.
"37 Postcards" might not be McKeever’s best play. How often, for instance, do we have to hear Evelyn mistakenly say that her son has been absent for six years, instead of the actual eight?
There are other unnecessarily repetitive jokes that, after a while, lose their humor. Still, altogether, "37 Postcards" is an entertaining, humorous and heartfelt play which would be a shame to miss.
Main Street Players production of Michael McKeever’s "37 Postcards" continues through May 19 at 6766 Main St. in Miami Lakes. Tickets are $30 (general admission) and $25 for students and seniors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call (305) 558-3737 or visit mainstreetplayers.com.