GREAT BARRINGTON — “He doesn’t think like we do. He’s a mechanical engineer,” playwright Mark St. Germain’s brother Paul says to him of their father, Louis St. Germain, in St. Germain’s fitful, less-than-satisfying autobiographical memory play, “Dad.”
“They’re all about precision; getting things right. Measurements. Blueprints. Otherwise, the world doesn’t make sense. He needs answers.”
So does his playwright son, Mark, played by an uncharacteristically hard-working Mark H. Dold in the Great Barrington Public Theater production that opened over the weekend in the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where it is scheduled to run through Saturday evening.
“Dad” is about Mark St. Germain’s search for answers to the enigma that was his father — a World War II veteran who, as a member of tank destroyer battalion, saw the devastation of war up close and personal, especially in the remains of a concentration camp; whose childhood was carved in emotional abuse; whose own marriage was built more on accommodation than love.
““Who is he?” Mark insistently asks his sister, Lynn, at one point.
“Who? The boy whose mother wouldn’t let him call her ‘mom’ and made him call her ‘mame,’” Lynn answers. “The boy whose father died shoveling snow on their front walk while he watched. The boy who went into the army and came home to find out his mother had his sister committed. Does that explain him enough to you? It does for me.”
To a degree, Louis' black-and-white view of life not only is a product of a mechanical engineer’s way of looking at things, it also could be seen as a toughening against, retreat from the callous, cold, cruelties — physical and/or psychological — people inflict on one another; events Louis witnessed first hand.
He enrolls in photography school when he comes back from the war but quits after a year to become a mechanical engineer. “A steady paycheck plus he wouldn’t have to talk to people,” Mark says.
As played, vividly so, by the production’s director, Jim Frangione — who stepped into the role after the originally cast Larry Bryggman had to bow out — the elder St. Germain is a force of nature; a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon who will make the most inappropriate gesture while acting out of what he considers his very best intentions. Tough, seemingly uncompromising, Louis lives his life in retreat, especially from those to whom he would be closest, not the least of them, his wife, who died of cancer but not before finding her own ways of reaching an accommodation in her marriage.
She formed her own bond with her children but she stayed clear of involvement in any issues between her children and their father.
Each summer, their mother would rent an apartment on the New Jersey shore just to get away from her husband. “He came down once a summer to see her. Once,” Mark says. “He went up to the beach for an hour, wearing shorts, black shoes, white socks and an aluminum pith helmet. Then he drove back the same day.” Funny, sad, economic in its detail, this is such a poignant, telling image.
“Dad” is loosely structured within the framework of Mark’s shift in an overnight caretaking rotation he shares with his married brother Paul, a Cadillac mechanic (a pointedly wry David Smilow) and their sister Lynn (Peggy Pharr Wilson), a nurse who has lost her lymphoma-diagnosed husband to a horrifying mistake by his medical team.
Smilow’s Paul is seen as his father’s golden boy, chiefly because of his skill and accomplishments as a track star in high school. Paul has his own issues with Mark. Like their father he has no interest in Mark’s career as a writer; has never seen any of his plays; is impatient, at the very least, with what he sees as Mark’s shortcomings.You can feel in the unspoken nuances of Smilow’s work the tug within Paul between a love for his older brother and the stirrings of a temperament that is very much in the mold of their father.
Wilson does the best she can with a character whose value and colors don’t emerge until nearly the end of the play.
While memories unfold with a logic all their own, there is little sense of a dramatic arch in “Dad.” In terms more of writing than performance, the movement, the rhythm in “Dad” is somewhat helter-skelter. To be sure there are sustained moments that are effective and moving — a scene in which the elder St. Germain tries to teach Mark some elementary boxing moves so he can defend himself against a school bully; a discussion between Mark and his dad that centers around God, religion, schooling, faith and the church; Louis’ account of his relationship with his mother and a particularly cruel decision she makes with regard to Louis’ sister; and the play’s final scene in which the three siblings, just hours after his death, sift through their dad’s belongings and share genuinely loving memories of him. For all of that, however, “Dad” doesn’t quite stand as a cohesive whole; just fragments of memories in search of connection.