The 1989 play Approaching Zanzibar, by Obie winner Tina Howe, is about a family's cross-country road trip to visit a dying aunt, and it seems at first to be traveling a familiar path. Indeed, for anyone who spent this past Memorial Day weekend trapped in a car with screaming kids, the opening scene may prove all too familiar. The biting. The bickering. The endless rounds of Geography and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."
But hang on. Like a journey enriched by unexpected side trips, Howe's play keeps veering entertainingly off-track. As seen last week at the Valley Players Theater in Waitsfield, the MOXIE Productions staging under the direction of Monica Callan-Holm occasionally loses control of this unruly vehicle, but eventually reaches a satisfying conclusion.
Not long after we're introduced to the road-tripping Blossoms, we discover they're hardly the generic family unit they appear to be in that first scene. Like characters in several of Howe's plays -- most notably 1982's Painting Churches -- they're all artists, or at least artists in spirit. Joseph Meade plays Turner, the youngest and a child prodigy on classical guitar. "He's been touched by God!" announces his precocious sister Pony (Callie Fothergill) in typically dramatic fashion; she says she's 9 but seems older. Father Wallace, played by Rob Donaldson, is a composer who teaches at Juilliard, and Charlotte (Noni Stuart), the mother, makes museum-worthy weavings as a hobby. The dying aunt, Olivia Childs (Tish Leahy), is an artist famous for huge, site-specific outdoor installations.
Perhaps it's the production, perhaps it's the script, but I struggled to buy these characters as denizens of the rarefied worlds of classical music and contemporary art. Wallace in particular seems more trailer park than Central Park. And the pace and style from scene to scene seem oddly uneven, ranging from farce to Chekhovian languor. One challenge for the actors is that Howe's script frequently calls for two or three conversations to be happening at once. The Blossoms handle their counterpoint nicely, but the momentum can sag drastically when the entire ensemble isn't in tune.
The pacing is hampered, too, by long, clumping scene changes. Set designer Peter Holm has created a clever structure that morphs from cartoonish yellow car to campsite to sailboat, among other settings, but actors and crew have yet to find a way to affect those transformations with ease.
But if the road is sometimes rocky, the characters' frequent U-turns into looniness are convincing and funny. Like the crazed prophetess the family meets in the Great Smoky Mountains (portrayed hilariously by Morgan Irons), everyone is prone to sudden eruptions and delusional visions. Charlotte (played by Stuart with vibrant comic flair) is a woman whose hot flashes are so hot she's prone to stripping off her clothes without realizing it, and she is so distraught about not being able to bear children that she keeps hearing a lost baby crying. Time is her enemy. Faced with the imminent death of her beloved aunt, Charlotte begs for everything to "Slow down!"
Her husband's outbursts are also connected to lost time. He's struggling with a sense of failure, having written only one really successful piece of music. When he botches an attempt to show his son how to fly-fish -- "I've got a chance to teach you something I'm really good at" -- he collapses into a fit of petulant outrage, which Donaldson makes at once scary, funny and real.
As his son comforts him, their roles seem reversed -- the son's the father, the father's the son. Later in the play, in a kind of dream-sequence reprisal of the hysterical family car ride, the roles are reversed, and the genders, too. The theme of shifting identities is amplified by some inspired double casting in secondary roles; Irons, Doug Bergstein and especially Stevie Schubart handle their double duty with aplomb.
Are the children destined to replay the lives of their parents? Not Turner, it seems. He has his mind on bigger things: "I hear planets moving through space. The humming of the spheres." Meade, a fourth-grader at Thatcher Brook Primary School, is a remarkably self-possessed actor for his age, and he infuses those lofty lines with a beatific glow.
But Pony is not quite as fearless. She may seem blithely confident, but she also carries a stuffed toy pony around for security and whinnies when she's nervous. Sixth-grader Callie Fothergill is a natural in the role, and she has darn good comic timing, too. Pony doesn't want to see her aunt -- she doesn't want to be that close to death. No wonder that when the family finally arrives in New Mexico, it's Pony whom Aunt Livvy asks for.
In the play's lovely final scene, Pony overcomes her fears when it becomes evident that Livvy (Tish Leahy in a nuanced performance) is neither as dithering nor as deathly ill as she seems. The two find common ground in a conversation that culminates in the elderly artist's memory of a long-ago, wildly romantic train trip to Zanzibar -- and a game of Geography that conjures destinations Pony hasn't even imagined yet.
The implicit message -- for Pony and for the audience -- is that you have to embrace the journey, not worry about where you'll wind up. Callan-Holm and company may still have a ways to go smoothing out all the bumps on this particular trip, but the group provides plenty to enjoy along the way.
Note: This is just the first stop on MOXIE Productions' odyssey. A brand-new company founded by Callan-Holm, it will present Zanzibar in three more venues this spring, with selected performances benefitting community groups at each destination. Eventually, Callan-Holm's goal is to establish an arts center on a Duxbury farm.