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"Acres of Diamonds" Unearths American Drama

By Katya Johns, Crimson Staff Writer

A play about a house that has been and signified so many things at once—a lovable home, a verbal war zone, a forgotten dream—could come off as a dizzying jumble of moving, mashed up parts. But while “Acres of Diamonds” is about all these things and much more, they came together in a neatly packaged portrayal of one family’s messy reality.

The play, which ran from Thursday to Saturday at the Loeb Ex, is the latest and perhaps greatest creation of writer and director Andy J. Boyd ’14 (“Affordable Rates and Color TV,” “Bitch: A Play About Antigone”), whose wide variety of plays resist categorization but not progression. “Acres of Diamonds” paradoxically broke new ground for Boyd in its grounded focus on a deceptively simple subject.

The story of a family conflict over selling the inherited estate is not exactly original. Additionally, Boyd infuses this family drama with the familiar setup of chasing the American Dream, symbolically setting the opening scene on the Fourth of July. Still, Boyd manages to make the story his own by bringing it into the present day, in the aftermath of the last recession, which gives the theme of lost and broken American dreams added poignancy and realism. The play abounds in sharp dialogue that spans the whole spectrum of adolescent and adult worry while still adeptly leaving much unsaid.

The cast superbly carried off the tensions in the play with both mature composure and intense emotional delivery. Apart from Danielle T. Lessard ’16 (Jo-Jo), who seemed way too old to be an eight-year-old, and Mallory J. Weiss ’15 (Abigail), who seemed way too young to be a mother, the nine-member cast made for a believable, dysfunctional family. However, the three main siblings especially stood out: Barbara (Amy K. Sparrow ’15), Mary-Kay (Mary C. Hallowell ’14) and James (Joshua G. Wilson ’14). Sparrow played Barbara as a strong matriarch who expertly balanced her roles as a pillar of strength, a soothing presence, and a voice of reason in the chaotic home. She thoughtfully delivered the aphoristic wisdoms of the play, stating, “We live in these places, but they live in us too,” and “We’ve taken care of this house; now it’s time it took care of us.” Hallowell as Mary-Kay also alternated gracefully between her double mask as an independent free spirit and a struggling single mother. Both onstage sisters had the added challenge of reacting to and controlling the explosive temper of their brother, James, on whose broad shoulders rests the entire momentum of the play.

As the tragicomic figure, James stands for all that is both irrational and understandable about wanting to keep the house, and though his actions are rarely defensible, the characters constantly reassured one another that “he means well.” However, to his credit, Wilson did not try to buy the audience’s affection for his character, whose repeated rages and “goddamns” made him more of a crude Uncle Vanya type than a downtrodden Willy Loman. It was a thrill to see Wilson, who has acted in numerous Shakespeare plays on campus, morph into a trash-talking hick so completely.

In fact, the one complaint with these roles is that they fit almost too neatly into their pigeonholes. In trying to add complexity to the family dynamics, Boyd fell back on stock characters, especially for the children, who form a perfectly diverse group of misfits, including a pothead, a gay cousin, a college dropout, and an orphan. Although Karl C. Kopczynski ’15 (Tommy) and Amelia Q. Friedman ’14 (Angela) acted their roles with the appropriate degrees of passion or indifference, the stage became overcrowded by all those jabbering egos, each following his or her competing storyline.

Part of the claustrophobia is intentionally reinforced by the set, designed by Heather D. Mauldin ’14: a beautifully constructed, one-room interior of the house where the family eats, sleeps, and argues. Confining as the place may be, it is never static and, in some ways, it is not material either. For the “house” they are fighting over is really a figment of their distant memories, buried in the picture of the house on the wall, which the characters symbolically tear at one point. For James, the house is also buried in the backyard, the eponymous “acres of diamonds,” where he hopes to regrow his yeoman roots from a pathetic “pile of shit.”

The title of the play is taken from Russell Conwell’s famous lectures in the Civil War era on finding value in one’s own backyard. Rather than leaving it there, however, Boyd’s play asks the more probing question of what to do if all the diamonds have already been dug up and spent? With his characteristic wit and perspicacity, Boyd has dug up enough nuggets of wisdom on his own to ensure that there is something for everyone to chew on. Rather than trying to digest it all, however, the only sane option is to walk away from the abandoned pile of manure with the sense of having learned and lived through something of undeniable worth—that is, the drama of these disillusioned times.

—Staff writer Katya Johns can be reached at kjohns@college.harvard.edu.

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On CampusTheaterCampus Arts