Playwright, novelist and educator Paul Zindel enjoyed a certain measure of real-life success in the 1970s and ’80s, but if he’d been asked, he might have declared the womb his refuge of choice. His father left the family when Zindel was two, after which his mom ran a “house of horrors,” taking a zillion odd jobs and threatening suicide on and around Staten Island for the rest of her lovelorn days.
In 1971, her son won a Pulitzer drama prize and more for 1965’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” and all seemed right with the world, or at least Broadway’s version of it — two plays later, along came his “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,” based on the same premise but without the bells and whistles that mark the excellent “Marigolds.”
His roily past may have spread him a bit thin by then; in any case, his “Reardon,” current mount at La Mesa’s Lamplighters Theatre, gives itself away before he prepares us for its pivotal moments. The development feels rushed and overwrought, and O. P. Hadlock’s otherwise earnest direction can’t quite rein in Zindel’s penchant for externalizing the plot.
Its lone Tony Award is cold comfort against a Pulitzer — by the same token, this entry can’t get past its own melodrama. By all means, see it, but don’t look for the kick that simply isn’t there.
The Reardon sisters’ cold, domineering mom took that kick to the grave, leaving her three daughters, all employees of the Staten Island schools, to clean up her mess. Ceil, the eldest and a virtual clone of her mother, got married and hides behind a district supervisor’s clout as she seeks to institutionalize sister Anna. The latter has supposedly had an affair with one of her students and is persuaded she’s had rabies. Titular assistant principal Catherine, who lives in mom’s co-op, picks booze as her escape of choice, downing it at the drop of every memory amid her romantic failures.
Add school guidance counselor Fleur Stein, in every sense as overbearing as Catherine, and you have the formula for Zindel’s second success — except that it doesn’t quite work out that way. That’s because the characters are so busy exhibiting each other’s flaws that we never see their own.
Only Ceil remains relatively detached amid this bitchfest, with Catherine and Anna unleashing past furies, often on each other. Fleur’s ulterior motive and her husband Bob’s grating sarcasm also fuel the path to World War III, with no predictable clear winner. There’s no focus to the characters’ arguments except the prospect of besting one another; the approach sacrifices all-important dimension.
Hadlock, however, has created some decent chemistry amid Catherine’s bitterness and Anna’s zany world. Actors Rhiannon McAfee and Heather Warren are just fine, while Susan Stratton’s Ceil is an appropriately lonely socialite. James Steinberg is OK in the underwritten role of Bob Stein, while Amy Dell’s vocal treatments for Fleur lean toward the gimmicky side after a while.
A big portrait of the sisters’ mother overlooks Hadlock’s set design; its ever-so-slightly askew position on the wall (however unintended) renders a superb effect. The rest of the tech looks and feels quite collaborative, with Pam Stompoly-Ericson’s costumes reflecting considerable thought.
Interestingly enough, the play’s absentee father abandoned his family for a “skinny ostrich woman,” much in the manner of Zindel’s own dad. Like the great Tennessee Williams, the playwright is known for gathering his source material from those closest to him — before his 2003 death at 66, he called his “Marigolds” autobiographical “because whenever I see a production of it, I laugh and cry harder than anyone else in the audience.”
But “Miss Reardon” isn’t “Marigolds,” let alone any Williams work you can name. While the cast certainly has the dynamic down, they’re hobbled by its lack of a cornerstone tragic figure. Yes, Miss Reardon drinks a little — oddly, and to his or her exclusion, every other character has a flaw of precisely equal measure.
This review is based on the matinee production of August 25. “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little” runs through Sept. 22 at Lamplighters Theatre, 5915 Severin Drive in La Mesa. $23 adults, $20 seniors over 62, students and active military. 619-303-5092, lamplighterslamesa.com.