It’s probably a bit unfair for me to compare Jessica Dickey’s sentimental Charles Ives Take Me Home to Sam Shepard’s unflinching and nervy True West, but as I saw them on the same weekend, it’s also a bit hard to avoid. After all, both plays center on family conflict, on the desires and resentments that drive a wedge between blood relations. But where Shepard is an intrepid explorer of the dark tunnels and caves of family dysfunction who uncovers and unearths increasingly bizarre and ugly examples of how tormented those relationships can be, Dickey is a mapper of the surface who charts facile connections between the seeming opposites of sports and music in a quest for harmonious reconciliation. Here, the conflict is between father John Starr (Drew McVety) and his daughter Laura Starr (Tressa Glover). John is a concert violinist, graduate of Juilliard, lifelong admirer and one-time student of the composer Charles Ives (James Fitzgerald), who genially presides, Our Town-Stage Manager-like, over the proceedings. John’s single-minded devotion to his music is matched by Laura’s fierce pursuit of perfection in basketball, and of course as these things go in plays like these, father is alternately baffled and irritated by daughter’s passion (and vice versa). He’s willing to indulge it as a harmless pastime, but angrily refuses both financial and emotional support when she declares an interest in becoming a basketball coach. In the end, John’s deathbed hallucination effects a reconciliation, of sorts, as he comes to see how his own commitment to craft and competitive drive to mastery has been expressed by his daughter, just in different ways.
The conflict in the play feels both predictable and improbable: we’re asked to believe, for example, that this father, who would rather practice scales than engage his daughter in conversation, would sacrifice a job with a major European orchestra to be close to her, and then we’re asked to buy that a man who has made such a sacrifice would make so little effort to understand and connect with his daughter. The play’s central thematic set piece, a lesson in musical technique that Laura transforms into a dribbling drill, comes off as stagey, contrived, and (in its final appearance) emotionally manipulative. Of far more interest than the family conflict or the thematic connections between athletics and music is the play’s exploration of what it means for a person to find the thing that gives his or her life meaning, and of the various ways one can organize one’s life so as to keep that thing alive. Here the presence of Charles Ives as a character in the play is key: one of the most influential composers in the twentieth century, Ives preferred to make his living selling insurance, and his story provides a rebuke to the myth that the best way to pursue your dreams is to pursue them singlemindedly and wholeheartedly. Neither John nor Laura seem particularly happy living their dreams – John is on a perpetual audition for a better gig with a more prestigious symphony, and Laura grows up to be the kind of coach who drains all the fun out of the game with her competitive drive. Only Ives seems to have struck the right balance between making a living and living a life, and what the play has to teach us about that balance, through his observations, is worthwhile.
Matt Morrow has directed a solid production with a fine cast. McVety – reprising the role he debuted off-Broadway – is a fine violinist as well as a gifted actor, and his exasperation with his daughter’s sports obsession is both credible and funny. Tressa Glover channels the overamped high school phys ed teacher with energy and a hint of camp, but she really shines as the young Laura desperately trying to connect with an out-of-touch father. James Fitzgerald, nuanced and understated as the philosophical Charles Ives, delivers one of his best and most generous performances.