‘Auctioning the Ainsleys’ at People’s Light

A silly comedy

The Ainsleys are a strange family. Alice Ainsley (Carla Belver) lives upstairs and hasn’t seen her three grown children in 15 years. Annalee (Teri Lamm) lives in her father’s office on the first floor. Amelia (Julianna Zinkel) lives in the carriage house, a mere ten feet from the main house. And Aiden (Jesse Pennington) lives in an empty space somewhere on the main floor. The fourth child, Avery (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), has fled the family domicile. Yet another “A,” Arthur (Brian Lee Huynh), arrives to help Alice record the events of her life before her memory is completely gone.

Huynh and Zinkel: Taking stock of family dysfunction. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Strange did I say? This OCD family has been struggling to make sense of the family auction business, which they operate from the large house. Mysteriously missing is their father, who looms large, like the painting on the wall in Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie.

In the Williams play, Laura plays with her glass animals just as Alice plays with the little objects that represent her children. Menagerie, like Auctioning the Ainsleys, is about a dysfunctional family, but Laura Schellhardt’s play about memory, which premiered in San Francisco in 2010, presents these grown children in a comic light.

When you walk into the theater, you are overwhelmed with an amazing set filled to the ceiling with antiques, oddities, and just old stuff that has been in the house for years. It is stunning. It symbolizes the business the family has run since the kids were young. As the play unfolds, we see that the three children inhabit boxlike structures from which they have trouble emerging, as their mother sits upstairs, above them, trying to figure a way out for her children.

“Stuff” and “things”

Annalee is obsessive about her unique system of organization, often stapling files to her clothing. That is how she deals with all the “stuff.” Amelia puts everything in pairs to make sense of “things” and of her life. And Aiden wants nothing in his space. It is empty. He wants to be rid of all material things. But Schellhardt does not present these characters in an existential light. Instead, she paints broad, very broad strokes of a kind of farce that is usually reserved for television. The comedy is silly. And therein lies the problem of the play.

Director Abigail Adams does all she can with the script, but it is less a play than it is a series of clever little bits of wisdom, thrust between jokes. We expect the comedy/drama to reveal more of itself when Avery, the oldest child, returns home. The child most like their father, Avery tries to restore order amidst the chaos, but she, like her siblings, talk at each other rather than to each other. A handful of younger patrons sat in the back row, laughing loudly at every joke, while most of the audience seemed subdued, waiting for something to happen, some truth to reveal itself, some important connection to be made.

The actors were strong, and I can’t imagine the direction being any stronger. But even though the play received awards when it played in Chicago, the script could use another rewrite or two.

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