On the eve of the publication of Harper Lee’s first manuscript, supposedly found in a safety deposit box, comes another potential classic discovery. William Inge, the playwright known for “Picnic,” Bus Stop,” and “Come Back Little Sheba,” has a dusted-off play being performed for the first time at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“Off the Main Road” stars Kyra Sedgwick and Estelle Parsons, leading a solid cast, together telling a tightly-wound story about a closed microcosm of people, each trying to figure out who they are in relationship to themselves and the cluster. At its core are 3 women–mothers and daughters. Their experiences, thoughts, and reactions are grounded and relatable (something I admire when a male creator can accomplish this about women).
No one character is just this or that. Even the bad-guy is presented in a nuanced way that makes him human, not a type. With this roundness, the final choice by the Sedgwick character is believable, although you might disagree. I was neither surprised nor saddened by it. It seemed inevitable to me, because Inge put the character in a place where she had to make that decision. Can you tell how hard I’m working to avoid spoilers?
Nothing particularly surprising happens in this play, but the intimate tension is palpable and in the quiet theater, each revelation is accompanied by audience gasps. I kept thinking how little has changed in the 50 years since the play was written, even as ostensibly women’s choices and roles have. Inge seems to have touched on something that transcends the period and its social types. The production has an honesty on issues we think about more readily today, but may have been too raw for 1966.
This rawness may be why this play ended up in a drawer of a renowned playwright. The program notes offer another explanation–he was out of favor.
It’s a well-crafted play about the truths between people and the twin poles of self-insight and desire. If you are a classic theater lover, keep your eyes open for this one. I think it’s less dated and mannered than other Inge works and will be around for a long time to come.