Director Emmalee Moffitt’s Richmond Hill Barn Theatre production of Independence may be the first work I’ve seen in which the pacing is a problem because it’s too fast. It struck me, while watching Thursday night’s performance, that a lot of tension was lost due to the lack of awkward silences during verbal spats; Moffitt doesn’t allow several scenes to breathe, particularly whenever the play’s matriarch and her eldest daughter argue, and so they wind up playing like ordinary family squabbles, rather than the uncomfortable, dysfunctional altercations playwright Lee Blessing intended.
The play seems to me an August: Osage County-lite, of sorts. There’s the crazy mother, Evelyn (Nancy Teerlinck), who’s suffering the loss of her husband and prone to fits of extreme anger (albeit not fits induced by drugs). There’s the homecoming of the eldest daughter, Kess (Stacy Herrick), who arrives to check in on, and eventually take care of, her ailing mom. And there’s also the family tension created by Evelyn’s antics, and how it affects her two other daughters, Jo and Sherry (Jennifer Ufen and Dana Skiles).
Much of the weight of Blessing’s script lies on the shoulders of Teerlinck, since her character’s insanity is the source of the plot’s dysfunctional dynamics, and the actress employs a vocal timbre and inflections that embellish her fury, and tears, to great effect. At times, however, when she’s not shouting or crying, Teerlinck’s deliveries seem unnatural, and both her performance and the overall production would benefit from the actress upping the crazy ante and delivering anger that’s even more intense. Based on what I did see from her, I believe Teerlinck has what it takes to deliver a more powerful performance if one can be coaxed out of her; her emotions are effective, but not effective enough to fully drive home the harsher points in Blessing’s script.
Herrick also does some heavy-lifting of Independence’s narrative, and also struggles to carry it, seeming to merely portray Kess’ emotions rather than feel them. There is a disconnect in her performance, as if she’s not fully embracing her character or pouring herself into the role, and Herrick reads her lines with oddly affected vocal inflections rather than her natural ones – or any natural ones. However, like Teerlinck, I think Herrick would be capable of better work were she coached to connect with her role, rather than simply display her character’s feelings.
Connection doesn’t seem to be a problem for Ufen, the most earnest member of the cast. Her work is refreshingly sweet, with seemingly sincere emotions pooling in her eyes, and Ufen is able to effectively create moments of awkward tension during Jo’s arguments with Evelyn by pausing before her line deliveries, staring at her mother with sadness, frustration, and/or confusion. Ufen lets her scenes breathe by using silence to build uneasiness.
Skiles, however, is the true saving grace of the play. While Ufen is emotionally strong, Skiles is delightfully funny, with her dry, slightly acerbic delivery. Given the performer’s off-the-cuff style, hers is the most realistic, unforced portrayal of the four, and even, for all of Sherry’s unlikable traits, the most likable, thanks to the humor Skiles injects into the role.
Overall, though, the ensemble doesn’t exude the hostility and discomfort needed to fully embody this on-stage clan. The tone never suggests anything more than a typical family with typical arguments, and the daughters’ pleas to be allowed to go out into the world and leave their mother behind don’t play as efforts to truly escape – they simply grow up and move on, as daughters are apt to do. With no sense of threat in the production, and no sense that any characters are in need of protection, Richmond Hill’s Independence family feels pretty much like any other family. And Independence itself feels pretty much like any other play – one missing the caustic, anxiety-ridden relationships that Blessing originally wrote about.
For tickets and information, call (309) 944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.