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Old-Fashioned, Yes, but You'll Like It Too

Russ and Sherrionne Brown in The Day They Left Home

By Jack Purdy | Posted 8/1/2001

The Day They Left Home

Bob Racine

In the postmodern age, where dramatic structure and dialogue are regularly fractured by playwrights looking for effects, it's almost shocking to encounter a deliberately old-fashioned work that moves surely and methodically from point A to conclusion. But that's exactly how The Day They Left Home moves. This Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry, mounted in Columbia by the Director's Choice Theater Company, is also markedly old-fashioned in language--it's clean. That may be because playwright Bob Racine is an ordained Baptist minister, but the play's period setting makes a dearth of profanity appropriate. The time is never stated exactly, but Perry Como is still a TV star, so it's a ways back.

The setting is the Virginia Tidewater, even more conservative 40 years ago than it is now, where the Boyer family is trying very hard to keep its private business private and not succeeding very well. Russ Boyer (Fred Brown) is a well-respected senior police officer specializing in juvenile crimes. His wife of 30 years, Louise (Sherrionne Brown), is an emotional, hand-wringing sort who inherited a lot of odd beliefs from the superstitious grandmother who raised her. While Louise has had a long and successful career as a secretary, she feels inferior and trumpets her inferiority to anyone who'll listen. Too often, those listening are Russ and the Boyer's only child, Carolyn (Elaine Norris), who had a bad early marriage and has returned to her hometown. As a character, Louise is directly descended from the heroines of Tennessee Williams--she's a thoroughgoing neurotic with an oddly practical streak, which she'll need as her family starts falling apart.

The fall begins when Russ' secretary accuses him of sexual assault. Because the current police chief, Len Ballard (Victor Carr), is retiring--and the new chief is from out of town--Russ' future on the force is in serious jeopardy. Russ tries to keep the accusation quiet (the girl has yet to go public, for venal reasons) but tells his daughter, who tells her mother, who tells her brother, until everyone who matters in Russ' life knows and he starts spiraling downward mentally and physically.

Racine succeeds best at evoking the strange family dynamics at work here. Louise (whose maiden name was, ahem, Purdy) is close to her brother, Dennis (Bob Perry), a city council member, and her sister, Wilma Dunston (Christine Vance). Russ, from New Orleans, feels like an outsider and suspects his brother-in-law of being in cahoots with his enemies on the force. Being the victim of a foul accusation that cannot be disproved, coupled with a police officer's natural suspicions, drives Russ to near-paranoia. And Louise, whose parents turned her over to her grandmother to raise while the other kids stayed at home, has always felt lost and alone as well. Thanks to the performances of Sherrionne and Fred Brown (who are married in real life), you can understand what brought this couple together and what is driving them apart.

But the playwright fails in two key areas. The first is sheer length--in two acts with four scenes each, The Day They Left Home runs about two hours and could use some serious trimming. And when the time comes to work out the crux of the play--the sexual-assault accusation--Racine simply has someone explain everything in the sort of bald-faced exposition writers use when desperately looking to wrap things up.

But neither length nor a clumsy resolution negate Racine's work, which is refreshingly serious and humane, without ever stooping to sentimentality.

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