Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through August 25, 2012
by Kait Rankins
Directed by two-time Tony Award winner James Naughton, “Brace Yourself” is the story of Sunny, an uptight and tense mother of two who just wants to hold on to control of her life. But with an easygoing husband who just wants to go fishing, a daughter rebelling against her meticulously-planned and lavish wedding, a son who’s gaining a reputation for being promiscuous and extremely noisy neighbors, keeping control isn’t easy. Add to that a 92-year-old aunt dying suddenly in her living room and a hurricane threatening evacuation of the island, things feel about as out of control as possible.
David Epstein’s breezy one-act comedy about kids growing up and leaving the nest threatens to become predictable, but it’s saved by a few plot surprises, unexpected irreverence, and charmingly funny characters. Golden Globe winner Jill Eikenberry is brilliant in her deadpan and grouchy portrayal of Sunny, and her chemistry with real-life husband Michael Tucker (Sunny’s husband Milt) is spot-on. Also of note is Clea Alsip (the son’s girlfriend) with adorable believability that makes her a breath of fresh air. Jackie Hoffman steals the show as Sunny’s chain smoking friend and neighbor Jeannette, delivering most of the play’s punch lines.
Special recognition needs to be given to scenic designer Hugh Lendwehr, lighting designers Paul Gallo and Craig Steizenmuller, costume designer David Murin, and sound designer Scott Killian for creating a fully-immersive set that can make the audience forget that they’re sitting in a theatre and not at Sunny and Milt’s island summer home.
Both the cast and the design keep the play grounded in realism, which is ultimately its greatest asset. “Brace Yourself” could easily fall flat if played solely for laughs, but Naughton’s direction keeps the characters from becoming abrasive caricatures. The plot can read like a sitcom episode where all the characters shout at one another and mug for the audience, but that kind of heavy handed approach is gracefully avoided. The result is a production that is lighthearted but realistic, and it’s a charming end to BTF’s summer season.