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June Kfoury and Paula Plum in “Grand Horizons” at Gloucester Stage Company. Photo: Courtesy Jason Grow

‘Grand Horizons’ depicts a less-than-grand view of marriage

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‘Grand Horizons’ depicts a less-than-grand view of marriage

June Kfoury and Paula Plum in “Grand Horizons” at Gloucester Stage Company. Photo: Courtesy Jason Grow

GLOUCESTER – Bess Wohl is a kind of theater archaeologist, digging for secrets about human connection.

In “Camp Siegfried” (2021), she focuses on the ugly reality of an actual 1930’s American Nazi summer camp indoctrinating German-American youth. Her 2015 hit, “Small Mouth Sounds,” probes truths about the lives of very different strangers at an unusual retreat where actual speech is rarely permitted. Wohl’s 2020 Tony Award best play nominee, “Grand Horizons,” – now in a powerful area premiere at Gloucester Stage – reveals secrets that have a profound impact on a seemingly ‘normal’ Delaware family.

Those secrets begin to explode as a result of a kind of hand grenade lobbed by wife Nancy French to her surprised husband Bill at their independent living unit in the title residence: “I think I would like a divorce.” While Bill immediately responds “All right,” their sons Brian and Ben – and the latter’s pregnant wife Jess – struggle at an extended family meeting to understand what is happening to a 50-year marriage.

That meeting with Brian, Ben and Jess staying at Nancy and Bill’s home has as much to say about the younger Frenches as it does their parents. Theater teacher Brian speaks of stress at work – staging Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” with a cast of 200 (no student is left out) – and “some personal stuff” even as he wonders whether either one is forgetting things. Lawyer Ben, dealing with a tough court case, brings up possible lack of sleep and contends that their parents “had a regular marriage,” one “that doesn’t end.” Fairly objective therapist Jess – who helps people avoid loneliness and regret – allows that Nancy and Bill may have experienced disappointments over the years.

Playwright Wohl cleverly reveals such disappointments in scenes that are alternately amusing and touching, between Nancy and Brian on the one hand and Bill and Ben on the other. Mixing humor and dramatic moments as she did in “Small Mouth Sounds,” she has Nancy speak frankly to Brian about her involvement with high school sweetheart Hal – who satisfied her sexual needs. For his part, Brian admits that “I never actually saw intimacy” at home. Ben, discovering that retired pharmacist Bill has been sexting with fellow would-be standup comic Carla, expresses disgust about his father’s idea of love.

The play’s humor reaches a visual high point when Nancy insists Bill take a sandwich with him as he prepares to leave, U Hauling such items as the television and a toaster. Under the taut direction of former Gloucester Stage artistic director Robert Walsh, current interim artistic director and gifted actress Paula Plum turns the making of the sandwich into a comic gem – one that novice actors should study. Plum’s actual husband Richard Snee – often fittingly clueless as Bill – perfectly comes across here as a schlemiel.

After a first act-closing accident that leads to striking moments of truth, Plum’s rich portrayal soars as feisty former librarian Nancy insists on being seen as a whole person. Her insistence may call to mind Linda Loman’s admonition to her sons that attention must be paid to their father, Willy, in “Death of a Salesman.” Wohl’s insightful play also suggests the influence of Edward Albee’s ‘’A Delicate Balance” as Nancy and Bill tell their sons to go (in Albee’s play, a daughter).

Throughout, the supporting cast make the most of the humorous and dramatic exchanges and face-offs. Greg Maraio captures Brian’s sensitivity and caring as well as his touching moments with Nancy. Jeremy Belize has Ben’s stoic demeanor as well as his very different responses. Marissa Stewart catches Jess’ helpfulness as well as her assertiveness with Ben. June Kfoury makes the most of Carla’s moments of understanding with Nancy (in a singularly funny and telling scene). Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia is properly outspoken as a date that demonstrates Brian’s difficulties with intimacy.

Well into the play, Nancy submits that “Truth is the first part of love.” If “Grand Horizons” is not quite as inspired as “Small Mouth Sounds,” it proves just as affecting. Here Wohl continues to lovingly probe human truths.

“Grand Horizons,” Gloucester Stage, through August 21. Call 978-281-4433 or visit gloucesterstage.com

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