Family men

If you have read this space before, you know that I advocate theatergoing as a habit rather than as a secular, arts-patron version of the token-church-visit-every-Easter kind of attendance. While the best theater is more visceral than anything in a multiplex or on DVD, many folks are unprepared for that experience when they're dropped into a live performance. Jump-cut film and video images have left many with the attention span of a fruit fly. Disciplining themselves to sit still and pay attention to people talking for two hours is simply more work than some people are prepared to do (much less pay for). Even a really strong production can leave neophytes underwhelmed -- at least until they've developed the ability to concentrate without being aware that they are concentrating. Then the spoils start rolling in.

All that reiterated, I was recently part of one of the most purely unmediated emotional audience reactions to a play during my tenure as a critic. It was at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, no less, a venue you are more likely to exit with popcorn kernels on the soles of your shoes than tears in your eyes. Don't misunderstand -- Stephen Metcalfe's Vikings is not a great script, not if by "great" you mean possessing startling images and ideas in combinations of words that are just as startling and artful themselves. There is nothing revelatory or risky on display here. Frankly, I'm shocked that the film rights to this sturdy but undistinguished 20-year-old play haven't been scooped up by someone like Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood as career-capper and Oscar bait, so bald is the playwright's desire to break your heart with uncomfortably familiar family dilemmas.

Generally speaking, I prefer onstage emotions to brush my face with dandelion delicacy rather than slap me with a wet halibut, but Pocket Sandwich's fish dish was prepared with lots of comforting butter and careful seasoning, both sweet and sour. By the end of the first act, the sound of sniffles from ticket-buyers was competing with the actors' voices. This is a show that arrests your attention with simple detail and performances that are lovely in their complete selflessness and desire to reach for meaning no greater than the simple exchanges of friends and family members being made in that moment.

Because of all that, Vikings is ideal for theatrical newcomers wary of the obtuseness and experimentation that marks so much theater these days, in this city and all over America. But the real surprise here: Those of us who get off on obtuseness and experimentation -- when it's delivered with élan, that is -- can find enough unadorned grit and sorrow in this show to maintain our traction throughout the evening. Stephen Metcalfe's drama is narrated by three generations of Danish-American men -- grandpa Yens (Joe Dickinson), son Peter (Brad Dickinson), and grandson Gunnar (Lars Smith). We get three alternating perspectives on what is obviously a critical moment in this family's history. Yens' health is failing, prompting regular home visits by a nurse named Betsy (Cindee Mayfield). Peter's alcoholism is accelerating, from dissatisfactions with the family house-building business and grief over the premature death of his wife that seems to grow more acute as the years pass. And Gunnar is about to graduate from high school and wrestle with what all high school graduates wrestle with -- what the hell is next? The uncertainty of all their situations aggravates everyone, with Yens attempting from his weakening state to steer his son and grandson in the general direction of creativity and contentment.

Real-life health issues have slowed the performance schedule of Pocket Sandwich co-founder Joe Dickinson, who has recently stuck to scriptwriting and a reportedly scary as hell Marley in the Pocket's annual Ebeneezer Scrooge show. If big roles tend to take a lot out of him these days, he obviously pours a lot into them, but with little apparent strain. A wizened fellow with a severe face and a voice that seems to be genetically engineered for the theater, less an ostentatious bellow than the mellifluous jingle-jangle of giant wind chimes, Dickinson would make a smashing King Lear. As Yens Larsen, the retired Danish home builder, bird lover, and amateur historian, he creates a more benevolent patriarch, one who is less heartwarming than alarmingly recognizable to anybody who has an aged parent. This is a man who wants to leave this life knowing that his remaining family is happy, or at least has made a truce with their demons. He wants to confront his son with his shit, not just for confrontation's sake but to point that it is shit, that the grown kid has the ability to clean it up.

Surprisingly, you don't spend a lot of time speculating on real-life parallels, even though Joe's son Brad Dickinson plays Yens' son Peter Larsen. Both so inhabit their roles without self-consciousness and seem so comfortable together onstage even in angry moments, your mind doesn't spiral into speculation about undercurrents of meaning. It's an irrelevant exercise -- the feelings that get vented in Vikings are at once personal and universal.

Cindee Mayfield does predictably fine work with a decidedly frumpier getup than I'm used to seeing her in -- she portrays a divorced nurse with three kids who hasn't quite gotten the courage to jump back on the dizzying dating merry-go-round. Mayfield has often played women of education, means, and taste -- it's nice to see her wearing white sneakers and self-doubt for a change. Making an incisive sophomore stage appearance at the Pocket is Brian Smith as Gunnar, the third-generation Larsen who doesn't despise the family construction business as much as dad Peter wants him to. Smith brings an alert intelligence and a wryness to the material reminiscent of Matthew Broderick's youthful performances. He's smart, but not a smartass -- seeing an actor so young play sincerity when cynicism rules in roles appropriate for his age feels like a small revolution.

Kudos abound for Vikings, but I do have one bone to pick with director Andy Long, who designed the sound with Shanon Dickinson -- the super-sugar-smack music. The decision to have swelling strings accompany some of Joe Dickinson's earnest monologues feels not just dishonest, but a little insulting to Dickinson, whose voice swells with an unconscious poignancy that couldn't be drowned out (or matched, for that matter) by 50 string orchestras. Why make him compete? He emerges victorious, of course, but part of you hopes another annoyed patron will sneak into the tech box and pour the dregs from a beer cup onto the sound board. In a sense, of course, the fact that the polyester sentiment in those recorded notes jars with the rest of the show is a compliment to the actors and director Long, who accomplish a very rare thing in this production -- a perfect match of audience and character emotion.

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Jimmy Fowler