REVIEW | Theatre [502] Bids High with ‘Auctioning the Ainsleys’

Memories are woven into the things we hold onto — we don’t get souvenir from memory for nothing. How do some objects end up telling the story of a family and others put out with the trash? When we forget the story behind a thing, does it become just another useless trinket? Can we neutralize a memory’s power by destroying the stuff to which it clings?

Laura Schellhardt explores these questions and the lingering effects of guilt and resentment on adult children of a domineering father and emotionally-absent mother in “Auctioning the Ainsleys,” a play about a traumatized family of auction house professionals who can’t separate themselves or their stories from their stuff.

Directed by co-artistic director Amy Attaway, Theatre [502] closes its third season with a touching and darkly funny production. Strong work by a cast crackling with chemistry and an elegantly restrained production team ground Schellhardt's poetic script and its many magical moments in emotional realism. 

There are four shows left in the run — Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre.

Alice Ainsley (Pat Allison) has decided it’s time to die. Her memory is fading, but she has decided she first needs to help her “emotionally stunted” adult children, most still living at home, move on. Her plan: to auction off the house and all of its contents from under their feet after her secretary Arthur (Lucas W. Adams), sent from the most prescient temporary employment agency in the Midwest, has made an accurate record of the family’s history, which she hopes will help set her children free from the past.

To do that, Arthur will need the cooperation of three fragile shut-ins — vulnerable Annalee (Cara Hicks), romantic Amelia (Erica McClure) and brittle Aiden (Neill Robertson) — as well as the oldest, Avery (Leah Robertson), the very angry prodigal daughter who left home the night the patriarch died 15 years earlier. Easier said than done, but Arthur wages a persistent internal war against failure, and his fortitude cracks the careful facades erected by each member of the family against their past and the outside world.

When adult siblings reconvene in the house in which they were raised, they often revert back emotionally to the ages they were when last together. But Annalee, Amelia and Aiden never left — they’re all still adolescents, abandoned by their father (dead), older sister (gone) and mother (absent, communicating by intercom from the attic). So no wonder they have idiosyncratic mannerisms — Annalee starts stapling papers to her jacket and “visualizing” her problems when she becomes agitated, Aiden lives in an empty room, Amelia fusses with a precious tableau of her absentee husband’s ephemera — but a restrained staging by Attaway prevents this production from slipping into twee territory. That saturated sensory approach can work on film (see: Wes Anderson’s entire oeuvre), but Fabi Russell’s costuming and Karl Anderson’s set are appropriately understated, which keeps the script’s emotional weight from being overwhelmed with kitsch.

Schellhardt’s script calls for moments of magical realism throughout the play. As Alice’s memory fades, significant objects disappear from the shelves in her room, often right in front of the audience’s eyes.  Designers Scott Anthony (sound) and Jesse AlFord (lights) help create those moments of magic with an effect that evokes the fried synapses of a failing brain — some things slip away quietly (wasn’t there a basket on that shelf?) while others vanish dramatically with a flourish.

The metaphors of the Ainsley household might be painted in broad stroke, but this isn’t a cartoon — Alice’s guilt and her children’s lingering pain are felt in every odd little quirk, but the humor in Schellhardt’s script never descends too far into darkness. Allison, Hicks, McClure and Adams turn in emotionally grounded and relatable performances, which allow Roberts’ rapid-fire defenses and Robertson’s satisfying whirlwind of grandiose exasperation and unchecked revulsion to shine. 

The Ainsleys are fictionally weird, but their struggle over who gets to name the family legacy — who has properly earned the right — are straight out of the average family’s manual of operations. Avery ran away, carrying the guilt of the survivor with her, while her three siblings stoked their resentments on the home-front. The show’s opening monologue by Roberts is an explosive auction pitch, a warning of things to come when Avery finally blows back into the house. 

Those who have watched Roberts grow as an artist over the last five years will see a substantial new side to her in this role, which is utterly devoid of ingénue or femme fatale trappings. Avery is unconcerned with everything except protecting her scarred heart, determined to level anything that connects her with the cruelty of her past, though Roberts allows her moments of vulnerability that allow the audience to connect with her character.

There are some weaknesses in the script, which is a bit of a victim of its own ambitions at times. As Alice points out in her opening monologue, she has four children — each with their own peculiar damages — and that's an awful lot of back-story and emotional growth to fit into one brisk play. Amelia, with her fixation on pairing objects for lots, is less developed than her siblings — the curse of the youngest child, perhaps, but her problems do seem a bit glossed over and easily fixed compared to the others'. The relationship that grows between Aiden and Arthur the secretary is also a bit easily won. 

Overall, this production is a satisfying cap to the company’s third season, a season marked with technical and stylistic growth. Theatre [502] continues to produce plays that spark conversation, that address societal questions expansive and intimate, and that showcase excellent acting and design.

Though mainstage productions are kept to a minimum (each of the three co-artistic directors helms one production per season), the company’s Small Batch Series is growing, so there’s still plenty of [502] to enjoy until they open their next round. Their commissioned site-specific serial play about Louisville magicians, Diana Grisanti’s and Steve Moulds’ “The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn,” debuts a new 10-minute installment every first Friday at The Baron’s Theatre in Whiskey Row Lofts, and co-artistic director Mike Brooks will direct Will Eno’s “Thom Paine (based on nothing)” for the Slant Culture Theatre Festival in November.   

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