Alice is the widowed matriarch of the Ainsley clan, a family of Midwest auctioneers, and in her waning years she has secluded herself in the family's Queen Anne house, communicating through an intercom. But when the memories begin blinking out, Alice seeks outside help.
In "Auctioning the Ainsleys," the world-premiere play by Laura Schellhardt that launches TheatreWorks' 41st season and ushers in the company's New Works Festival, that help comes in the form of Arthur, a young man with a singular gift for taking thorough and accurate notes, even under stressful conditions. Alice hires him to jot down her reminiscences before it's too late.
She also enlists Arthur's help in preparing the house and its contents for auction. Of course, this task is not nearly so daunting as preparing Alice's grown children for the sale of their home and the family business.
The ensuing turmoil forms the core of Schellhardt's story, and she mines it for all the humor it's worth. The play, billed as "a dramatic comedy," is by turns absurd, insightful and touching. It's a vigorous and refreshing work from a young playwright not afraid to let the theater be theatrical.
The production is stylishly directed by Meredith McDonough, who heads the New Works Festival, and features masterful performances from all six cast members.
Diane Dorsey is quietly resolute as Alice, a woman who chooses to focus on the task at hand with all the clarity she can muster. Happily, Dorsey also has a talent for delivering trunkloads of exposition in a completely natural manner. She is largely responsible for setting the rhythm and tone of the piece, and she does it well.
Faithful scribe Arthur is played by Lance Gardner, the embodiment of efficiency and dedication in raspberry slacks. Arthur is also a sort of magic looking glass for the Ainsleys, taking in their quirks without judgment and mirroring them back with a gentleness and wisdom beyond his years. In time, he becomes the trusted friend that each of the Ainsleys needs to move forward in their lives.
And move forward they must, for each of the Ainsleys is, in some sense, stuck. In "Auctioning the Ainsleys," Schellhardt is concerned with the elaborate tactics that each of us uses to deal with the chaos of day-to-day life. Like the grand Victorian house where most of Alice's children still reside, these tactics can both protect and entrap.
Not surprisingly for a family that subsists on auctioning the remnants of other people's lives, the Ainsleys have a tendency to organize their own lives around stuff.
Take daughter Amelia. Amelia has a talent for grouping auction items into lots, collections of things that will sell better together than separately. She believes she can judge the health of her own marriage (poor, as it turns out) by comparing a pile of her possessions to a pile of her husband's, determining if her objects are a good match for his. Smartly played by Jessica Lynn Carroll, Amelia is hopelessly naive but never shallow.
Her sister Annalee is responsible for the auction house's paperwork. Wielding the meanest stapler in the Midwest, Annalee guards her niche by creating a filing system that is utterly undecipherable to everyone else. Actress Molly Anne Coogan plays Annalee's various neuroses and coping mechanisms to the ludicrous hilt while still keeping the character believable. (Coogan also edges out her costars for the show's Wildest Comic Moment award when, in a desperate moment, Annalee staples herself to her father's desk.)
Liam Vincent is deliciously disagreeable as brother Aiden, a gifted restorer who can polish or tarnish, repair or distress with equal skill, whichever will maximize an object's value. Aiden chooses to keep life's chaos at bay by renouncing material possessions altogether, and his basement apartment is barer than a monk's cell. (The budding romance between Arthur and Aiden seems more like the playwright's idea than the characters', but Vincent and Gardner play it with a light touch that renders it charming.)
As the wayward eldest sibling, Avery, actress Heidi Kettenring has the toughest role. The only one of the Ainsleys to leave home, Avery is now an itinerant auctioneer, dealing with the painful things in life by selling them off. Alice's plan to sell the house draws Avery home for the first time since her father's death, and Kettenring is saddled with oblique exposition about the abusive patriarch. With a weaker actress, the play might implode under this subplot, but Kettenring makes it work.
Splendid performances aside, much of this production's theatrical flair derives from its technical elements. Annie Smart's black and white, two-and-a-half-story set has a sense of hand-drawn whimsy about it: a Victorian interior from a New Yorker cartoon. It is also spectacularly functional, rotating to reveal three living spaces in addition to Alice's attic and Aiden's basement. (On opening night, the first set change provoked an audible "Oooo ..." from the audience.)
But it is the combined work of lighting, sound and properties designers that creates the most impressive effects. Each time one of Alice's memories decays, a physical item on stage disappears with a synaptic sizzle and a flash of light. Even though these items are invisible to Alice and the audience, the other characters continue to see, touch and use them. The attendant sound cues — the reverberant crack as Avery wields an invisible gavel, the rubber-ducky squeak as Arthur squeezes an invisible finger puppet — are timed with an almost miraculous precision.
"Auctioning the Ainsleys" is bursting with theatrical magic, from audio-visual illusions to unexpected revelations of the human heart. It is also a tremendously funny, inventive play. Catch it while you can.
What: "Auctioning the Ainsleys," a play presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 8, on Tues. and Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Thurs. and Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $19-$67.
Info: Call 650-463-1960 or go to http://theatreworks.org .