The Summer House – Review by Luke Dodge
A set of old furniture and bluegrass music immediately set the tone for this historical drama. Simple, flat boards distinguish the walls of the house, complete with front porch in an intuitive bit of set design removing any barriers between the audience and the actors. The costumes are elaborate and appropriate; no expense was spared.
The relationship between Zee James (Emmy Panzica-Piontek) and Fannie Woodson (Stefanie Stevens) is one of old friends. Emmy and Stefanie exchange silent knowing glances with a wink and a nudge to the audience who are in on the joke. They balance this adept physical humor with intimate moments of conflict between the partnership as the two wives struggle to go different directions with their husbands.
Neighbor Kate Eastman (Casey Jane) constantly shows up at the worst opportune moments to heighten the tension of a continuous secret. Casey brings a perky, upbeat energy to the wealthy woman looking to escape the bonds of marriage within the chains of patriarchal society and the banality of comfortable, wealthy life.
With unfortunately too little stage time, Marek Burns plays son Jesse James Jr. This reviewer is happy to see young actors play characters their own age. Too often these roles are given to older actors when those such as Marek are perfectly capable (and more believable) at filling the role.
Kate’s mother, Ellen Cantrell (Margaret Shelby), delivers expertly timed lines of comedic disdain as someone accustomed to living in the upper class. The often not so passive-aggressive family drama between Kate and her mother is a delight to watch as the two carefully joust around their true feelings.
Bill Ryan (Sam Wright) is introduced actually playing the banjo on the porch while, presumably, not actually being drunk. Sam’s sober and “intoxicated” acting is both grounded and believable. He deftly mixes charm and menace as the families’ fate hangs in the balance.
With a cast dominated by female characters, The Summer House disappointingly fails the Bechdel Test. Kate finds her freedom among the patriarchy of the time in the only character arc preventing the show devolving into a full-on re-enactment.
Following classic comedy tropes dropped onto a historical time period, backward social norms are the subject of many jokes. While the acting was spot on and the costumes exquisite, there were no surprises and the show felt more like a History Channel episode than a play.