Wise people say possessions can't make us happy. But in Laura Schellhardt's “Auctioning the Ainsleys,” a dark comedy about a family of auctioneers who identify fiercely with the physical objects that surround them, stuff matters.
Directed by co-artistic director Amy Attaway, “Auctioning the Ainsleys” is the final production in Theatre 's third mainstage season.
The Ainsleys live and work inside the family business, an auction house. Fifteen years earlier, their iron-fisted patriarch passed away and eldest daughter Avery, the heir apparent to the auctioneer throne, took off. As the play begins, matriarch Alice has decided it's time for her to die. But first, she has to divest the family of the house and its possessions so the three other adult children (Annalee, Aiden, and Amelia) can move on with their lives.
One problem with Alice's plan is that her children have lost the ability to differentiate themselves from their roles. And they cling tightly to (or in some cases, are repelled by) their things – the accoutrements of their roles in the family and in the auction house. It’s one way they cope.
“'Auctions aren’t about objects, mother, they’re about life,' one of them says,” says Attaway. “But the people in the play define themselves completely by the objects that surround them. That to me says something really interesting about what does it mean to hold onto objects so fiercely and bestow so much meaning upon them that you can’t do anything else?”
When Alice calls Avery home and introduces Arthur, a new outside employee, cracks form in the fragile construction of the Ainsley family story.
“He starts gently poking little holes into the siblings’ constructs of the world and their lives and their worth,” says Attaway. “As he’s poking little holes, Avery comes in like a bulldozer. And when the two of them meet, the play really breaks apart.”
“Auctioning the Ainsleys” made its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 2010, and that production was directed by Meredith McDonough, now associate artistic director at Actors Theatre. Schellhardt teaches playwriting at Northwestern University, and is the recipient of the TCG National Playwriting Residency, the Jerome Fellowship, the New Play Award from ACT in Seattle and a Dramatist Guild Playwriting Fellowship.
Keeping with this season’s theme of pushing the fledgling company’s production skills, “Auctioning the Ainsleys” includes quite a bit of actual illusion to go along with the usual suspension of disbelief. The script frequently calls for objects to vanish before the characters’ eyes: “Alice looks to the plate on the wall. There’s the sound of a crackle and a pop. The plate disappears.”
The  resident technical designers (including sound designer Scott Anthony, set designer Karl Anderson and lighting designer Jesse AlFord) are using all of the tools at their disposal – lights, sound, wood, nails and even people – to make the objects (including some that are quite large) disappear.
Attaway says the company’s research for their on-going serial play project about Louisville magicians came in handy when designing this show’s special effects.
“Magicians are master storytellers, and they’re masters of sleight-of-hand, but also masters of distraction,” she says. “As we’ve studied great magicians for ‘The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn,’ we’ve stolen some of their techniques for these disappearances.”
“Auctioning the Ainsleys” opens Saturday and runs through October 12 in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Although it closes their mainstage season, the company's Small Batch Series continues with “The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn” (the next installment is Friday, every hour starting at 7 p.m., at the Baron’s Theatre in Whiskey Row Lofts) and Will Eno’s “Thom Paine (based on nothing)” in November’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival.