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'Becoming Memories' a stirring family play at Public Theater

(c) The Pittsburgh Press

April 26, 1985

By Susan H. Smith

A tender tribute to the American family, Arthur Giron's "Becoming Memories" is suffused with bittersweet nostalgia, knowing laugher, and sentimental affection.

The play, cut whole cloth from Thorton Wilder in style and substance, is ideally suited to the Pittsburgh Public Theater which has had success recently with similar works such as "The Dining Room" and "Quilters." A work for and about the white middle class, it extols the virtues of an America solidly rooted in Midwestern values, a mythic, innocent, agrarian America based on the working family.

A comedy in the best sense, "Becoming Memories" celebrates the biological urge to survive despite adversity and affirms the triumph of love over fallibility. The play follows the lives of nine people, beginning in 1911 when they fall in love and ending in the present when most of them have become dim memories to the grandchildren who cherish but do not understand them.

As adults we are too knowledgeable about our parents to have many illusions about their relationship, we only know our grandparents when we are children and can cling hopefully to the belief that they were happy in love. Left only with photographs of their golden moments, we reconstruct a romantic past that satisfies our need to believe that we descend, in Giron's words, "from a chain of love."

"Becoming Memories" breathes life into the photographs and reveals that, while all marriages begin and end in love, the long stretch in the middle can be rough going.

Giron opens with the May-December union of the spunky Rosina (Lisabeth Bartlett) and the dour Albert (Christopher Hale), a marriage soured by his repressive brutality. Ms. Bartlett gives a very strong performance; Hale seems monochromatic. Margaret (Helena Ruoti), a poet, and John (Tom Spackman), an Irish widower, fare no better when he cannot overcome the memory of his first wife. Ms. Ruoti's most affecting moment is at the point of her disintegration.

Ida (Katharine Long), a delicate school teacher, and Henry (Peter Webster), a soldier and engineer, do have a happy marriage but it s rooted in his blind idolatry. Sophie (Sonja Lanzener), a Polish farmer, and Oscar (Jack Grapes), a dissolute charming trumpeter, battle endlessly but with mutual consent. Grapes won the audience with his shaggy goad song in the last act.

Hanna (Catherine Butterfield), a dedicated Mennoate missionary, loses her chance at marriage but conveys her sense of marriage to God to her nephew Stephen (Steven Culp) during his crisis of faith. Ms. Butterfield conveys a delight and intensity in her part.

Giron weaves the separate stories in and out of each other as well as in and out of the past on Harry Feiner's dreamscaped stage, a spare, blue-gray, timeless place, perhaps a garden, now left with a decaying trellis, perhaps a shore, now strewn with driftwood. Director Lee Sankowich stresses the sense of a leisurely past, waltzing the cast into place and hymning the joys of a simpler, rustic time, never allowing the stage to be still or empty.

Though the cast is uniformly strong, "Becoming Memories" belongs to the women. In a play rich in comic and tragic moments, the women have the best of both. The play is, in fact, strongly feminist, for the women are shown to be strong and brave, and clear-sighted while the men are weak, cruel, or dissolute. The women are the civilizing forces, the binding elements that hold the families together and assure their survival.

"Becoming Memories" is less a work of dramatic literature with a substantive text than a piece for the theater full of music and visual images. The flexible cast plays everyone from a girl of 5 to the granny at 70 and everything from firecrackers to ducks with enthusiasm and skill. Every mood shift is carefully orchestrated with Kim Sherman's music, artfully conditioned by Kirk Bookman's dramatic lighting effects and complemented by Flozanne A. John's period costumes.

Giron shoots at the heart, not the head. "Becoming Memories" is a safe, sweet play full of irresistible charm in which even the pain is muted by sentiment. It is not without flaws, however. It is too long and some scenes drag. Giron has also tried to stuff the play with more than its already complex theme by tipping his hat to America's ethnic diversity and varieties of religious experience. Sometimes the pleasantly thoughtful threatens to become portentously pretentious and profound.

Ultimately "Becoming Memories" is strong family drama, a play with resonances for every member of the audience who will, in time, become a memory for the next generation.

Last night's performance was attended by 350 people; the house holds 475.

"Becoming Memories" is at the Pittsburgh Public Theater until May 19, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. with matinees at 2 on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Telephone 321-9800.

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