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'What I Did Last Summer' - Amusing and Affecting Memory Play

Noah Galvin and Kristine Nielsen in What I Did Last Summer
(©Joan Marcus)

Amusing and affecting, A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer turns the clock back some 70 years to tell the story of a teenager’s coming of age as he spends the summer with his mother and sister at a vacation spot new Lake Erie while his father serves in the Pacific during World War II. It’s a charming---and familiar---story that’s made invigoratingly fresh by both Gurney’s style and two exceptional performances.

Theatergoers know they’re in for an unusual ride as soon as Last Summer begins and a series of stage directions are “typed out" (courtesy of projection designer John Narun) on the beige polygon that serves as the backdrop for Michael Yeargan’s spare scenic design. Once the show’s youthful hero Charlie (Noah Galvin) has bounded onstage to boldly announce “This is a play about me,” the show’s presentational nature has been firmly and irrevocably established.

As the piece, directed with a sensitive and sure hand by Jim Simpson, progresses, the performers continue to address the audience, and a drummer (Dan Weiner) sitting at one side of the stage punctuates jokes, momentous events, etc. It’s all just enough to give Gurney’s story a deliciously impish feel that beautifully matches the story being told.

Charlie, you see, is at that first moment in puberty where nothing seems to working as it should and fighting with the world seems to be the only option. He resents having to spend the summer studying Latin. Another vacationer, Ted (Pico Alexander), who’s just a bit older seems to have it all together. He’s working mowing lawns. He’s also got a car, which is just enough to impress the girl Charlie likes, Bonny (Juliet Brett).

In an effort to compete with Ted, and to get away from his mom (Carolyn McCormick) and sister (Kate McGonigle), Charlie decides he’ll apply for a job with a local eccentric, Anna (Kristine Nielsen), a woman whom the locals have nicknamed “The Pig Woman.” During their first meeting, Anna’s drawn to Charlie’s pluck and lack of direction and decides that she will take him on, but not as a worker, but as a student. She decides that she will “unlock his potential.”

Thus, Charlie spends his summer days---much to his mother’s chagrin---with Anna, experimenting in sculpture, weaving and painting. Along the way, she also works to instill in him a healthy sense of questioning the status quo, which means his own privileged existence. Wathcing Gurney’s play, it’s rough not to think of Anna as an upstate, pioneer version of Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame.

It should come as no surprise that Anna’s lessons only fuel more conflict for Charlie, both internally and at home, and before the summer has come to an end, there have been fireworks for his family and in the community in general.

Throughout, Galvin gives a performance that sparks with pubescent petulance and anger, and while those qualities might make it sound as if it’s a turn that would be unpleasant to watch, it never is. Galvin infuses the character with such an eager ease that one can’t help but like and root for this young man as he strives to find his place in the world.

Alongside Galvin’s marvelously energetic Charlie is Nielsen’s warmly sage Anna. Nielsen brings her hallmark wonkiness (seen so often in Christopher Durang’s plays) to the stage and moderates them with a world weary and wizened gravitas. The combination makes Anna’s allure for Charlie (as well as all of the young people who preceded him) entirely understandable.

At the other end of the spectrum is Carolyn McCormick’s nervously edgy turn as Charlie’s mom, who’s had to hold a family together on her own for several years while her husband has been overseas. It’s a performance that captures both the woman’s deep maternal instincts as well as her desire to be something more than just a wife and parent.

Alexander, McGonigle and Brett, as the other three young people, deliver equally spirited performances, and by the time What I Did Last Summer reaches its bittersweet conclusion, audiences will, most likely, find themselves grinning while also thinking about some of their own foibles and perhaps a few of their own missed opportunities from their teenage years.

---- Andy Propst

What I Did Last Summer plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.