PICTURED: Ashley Osler and Buddy Wilds star as Claire and Russel in Family Furniture. Photo courtesy Lisa Angle/Ninety Degrees Media

by Emily Dodi

After more than a year, it felt wonderful to be in a theater again. The excitement was palpable at the Ojai Art Center Theater (Ojai ACT) for the performance of A.R. Gurney’s Family Furniture (running through July 18).  The theater itself appeared to have undergone a spring cleaning. The center, founded in 1939, had the air of an ingenue, fresh-faced and ready for her close-up. As for the people gathered — audience and Ojai ACT folk alike — the tone was blissful and grateful with a hint of relief. It felt like seeing old friends again, even if some of the friends were strangers.      

Set in 1954, “in and around a house on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, not far from Buffalo, New York,” Family Furniture revolves around a seemingly happy family, the kind found in John Cheever stories. The wildest thing they ever do is serve their martinis over ice . . . until a whiff of scandal shakes their foundation. Perhaps tremble would be more apt; emotions in this family are buried so deep they’re fossilized.  

The play opens with patriarch Russel (Buddy Wilds) telling his college-age son Nick (Benjamin Wilson) that he can’t reach his wife, Claire (Ashley Osler), who’s in New York City shopping for slipcovers. Is Russel concerned about her, or is he just worried that she’ll forget the Brooks Brothers shirts he ordered? Russel goes off to bed just before his daughter and Vassar-student Peggy (KiSea Katikka) comes home and tells Nick that their friend’s father is in New York, too. This sets off suspicions about their mother’s infidelity that continue to build like the waves on the lake. Try as they might to head it off, the family can’t avoid some rough weather. Question is, can they ride out the storm?  

The minimalist set by Will Deaux cleverly implies that maybe the family furniture is actually the people, not the old sofa that Claire wants to spiff up or the small boat that Russell navigates around the lake. It becomes clear that Claire can’t cover up what’s truly lacking and Russell is in deeper water than he knows. 

The costumes by Sheryl Jo Bedal are pitch perfect for the period. The same can be said for the props by Bedal and Christina Colombo, who is also the stage manager. Lighting designer Sam Thomas eschews soft lighting for a more fitting realist tone. Sound designer Steve Grumette utilizes songs of the era to cheekily support the action. Light and sound operator Jerry Montanez and lighting technician Pat Lawler round out the crew.

Director Tom Eubanks, who directed his first play at Ojai ACT in 1972 at “the barely ripe age of 19,” chose Family Furniture to be his last play in Ojai. (He and his family are moving out of state.) Ojai Art Center board of trustees president Len Klaif hailed Eubanks as a “long-time Ventura County community theater stalwart” who helped to reinvigorate the Ojai ACT theater branch with Steve Grumetter and Bill Spellman. (Spellman produced Family Furniture.) Eubanks explained that he chose Family Furniture in part because “it is about a family suddenly confronted with being emotionally uprooted and how their love for each other holds them in place.” He adds that “families are tap roots” and Ojai ACT is “where my theatrical tap root is centered.” 

After our tumultuous year, it’s so good to say that Ventura County theater is ready for all of us to come home again.

Family Furniture through July 18 (no performance July 4) at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St, Ojai. For tickets and more information call 805-640-8797 or visit ojaiact.org.