The complex relationships between mothers and daughters have long captured the imagination of American playwrights. That fact occurred to me during 12 Chairs, a new gloss on the subject receiving its premiere from Juniper Productions. John O’Hara’s derivative two-hander riffs on every established trope of the genre that has been explored more deeply elsewhere.
The only somewhat distinctive element comes in the form of those chairs, each of which supposedly represents an important moment in the lives of Ann (Marcia Ferguson) and her daughter, Louise (Amanda Schoonover). Raven Buck’s spare set design consists of little more than a dozen wooden seats, which a character called The Mover (Rebecca Neckritz) silently rearranges or removes at the conclusion of each scene. (O’Hara calls his scenes “movements” in the program, a pretension I cannot abide.) As the intermissionless 90 minutes wear on under Carly L. Bodnar’s soporific direction, you’ll likely find yourself counting how many chairs remain onstage, happy when the ranks finally dwindle to nothing. That means you can leave soon.
O’Hara tells the audience that Ann and Louise have a fraught bond, a fact we’re supposed to accept at face value. But we rarely see it borne out in the short vignettes that form the majority of the play. Instead, we run through a checklist of familiar moments that seem like they could’ve been pinched from any number of Hallmark movies: Ann comes late to Louise’s Christmas concert. Louise fights with Ann over her desire to be an actor. Louise has boy trouble. Ann has an unhappy marriage. Louise moves home. Ann moves into a home.
It would be possible to spin compelling drama from these established experiences, but both the play itself and the relationship it depicts remain disjointed throughout. Too often, O’Hara has Schoonover and Ferguson play secondary characters who add little depth to the drama and actively subvert the audience’s connection to Ann and Louise. Both women do good work here—Schoonover is compelling as a kindly healthcare worker (with a Philly accent you could cut with a knife), and Ferguson has fun with an older cousin who introduces Ann to alcohol—but each still feels like an aside, pulling the focus farther away from what should be the central story.
When the proceedings do focus on Louise or Ann, O’Hara capitalizes on reductive views of motherhood and daughterhood, which are usually presented in relation to men. Louise describes Ann as a product of a time when women were expected to care for little more than their husbands and children—especially their sons—but common sense tells us those housewives and mothers also had rich inner lives, whether or not anyone acknowledged them. But you don’t get a sense of that here, especially as Ann essentially decides to retire from life after her spouse’s death. It remains an open question why a company aiming to amplify women’s stories would choose such a contrived piece.
The virtues of couches
For her part, Schoonover brings her customary intelligence to the assignment, and she excels at presenting Louise’s journey from flighty child to awkward adolescent to compassionate adult. (It takes a lot for me not to wince at a grown actor playing a kid, but Schoonover’s conception of a seven-year-old stays remarkably unbothersome.) Ferguson sometimes plays too directly to the audience; her best moments are the quieter ones. Both should be commended, though, for treating this trite material with any level of seriousness.
Other production elements ring false: Lucas Fendlay’s lachrymose interstitial music underscores the artificiality of the entire project—try not to laugh out loud when you hear the quotation from Pachelbel’s Canon in D—and Sydney Norris’s heavy-handed lighting cues likewise emphasize the script’s sentimentalism.
Perhaps if 12 Chairs were a television movie, it would be more palatable. For one thing, you’d be watching it on your comfortable couch, not elbow-to-elbow with a stranger on a hard-bottomed folding chair. More importantly, you could change the channel whenever you wanted.
What, When, Where
12 Chairs. By John O’Hara, directed by Carly L. Bodnar. Through May 12, 2019, at Buttonwood Studios, 1022 Buttonwood Street, Philadelphia. juniper.agency.
Buttonwood Studios is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons requesting accessible seating should email house manager Marisa Faller ([email protected]) after purchasing tickets to make arrangements.