Thursday, January 29, 2015

What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney

It's interesting to read What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney now, more than 30 years after it was published, and consider that this play was set in a time almost 40 years prior to its publication.

In the summer of 1945, 14-year-old Charlie, his older sister Elsie, and their mother are vacationing in Lake Erie while Charlie's father is fighting in World War II. Eager to earn money (like his best friend Ted, who has his own lawn-mowing business), Charlie responds to artist Anna Trumbull's ad seeking a handyman and ends up becoming her student, even though he has little to no artistic ability. As the summer progresses, Charlie's mother and sister begin to realize how much Charlie is taken by Anna: he begins to share her ideologies and rattles off things about society and life at the dinner table that he never would have considered a few months earlier. Meanwhile, Charlie's pals Ted and Bonny are (kind of) seeing each other while (kind of) keeping an eye on Charlie.

Sometimes, when Charlie speaks directly to the audience, he has the air of an adult musing on his mischievous youth, but when he is engaged in dialogue with the other characters, he is clearly an kid. Once he sets Anna on a pedestal, that's it: her opinion trumps that of his mother or his friends, and he'd rather spend time with her than with anyone else. Those who have seen or experienced hero worship firsthand know how stubborn people can be in that situation, and how difficult it can be to reason with them.

Modern readers might find the piece a little too brief, but they might discover something refreshing about a coming-of-age story that's fairly simple rather than lurid, from a time when life moved a little slower than it does on today's information superhighway.
Bonus: Read a review of the 1983 production. The cast included Christine Estabrook as Elsie, who you may recognize Christine from any number of film, TV, and theatre roles, including Mad Men, Spring Awakening, The Usual Suspects, and American Horror Story.

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