There are only three characters in Charles Ives Take Me Home, now receiving its regional premiere in a stunning production at Curious Theatre Company, but you hear more than three voices. And while the plot can be explained in a few words, there are many levels of meaning within it. See also: Best Theater Bar 2014 -- Curious Theatre Company
John Starr, a professional violinist who never got along with his sports-obsessed father, finds himself the father of a dedicated jock: Laura, a talented young basketball player, who eventually becomes a high-school coach. She doesn't get his passion; he most decidedly doesn't get hers. The third character is Charles Ives, the turn-of-the-century composer thought of as the father of contemporary music and known for his use of dissonance and ability to bring together differing styles and forms -- say, requiem and ragtime -- in the service of music. Ives was eclectic in his personal life, too, an athlete as well as a musician, and, unlike the contemporary ideal of the artist in his garret, a successful businessman. Ives appears in the play in ghostly person, a generous-spirited, avuncular joker who serves as mentor, father figure and inspiration to John -- who actually encountered him in the flesh many years earlier as a student at Juilliard.
John isn't exactly starving. He makes a living playing with the Queens Symphony Orchestra, but it's a bare-bones living, and the effort of paying child support to the ex-wife he dislikes, as well as coming up with cash for such things as Laura's summer basketball camp, taxes his patience.The two other characters -- and they're almost as palpable as the flesh-and-blood actors -- are basketball and music itself. Few playwrights have the gift of communicating without words -- through objects, rhythm and movement -- but Jessica Dickey definitely does; she uses varying elements just as Ives does disparate sounds. Dave Belden, in the role of John, is a precise and eloquent violinist -- the actor is a member of the Chicago Sinfonietta and has played with some of America's top ballet companies as well as artists as diverse as Johnny Mathis and Björk. When he picks up the violin, it comes alive. Two of the evening's most moving and significant sequences are duets. In the first, Belden plays a violin-piano duet with Jim Hunt as Ives. I'm assuming Hunt's playing is faked, but you can still see the music moving through his body and sense the musical current between him and Ives. The second -- and very surprising -- duet occurs between Ives and Kate Berry, who plays Laura. Laura's thumping basketball has already provided much of the play's rhythm and focus. Here she dribbles, bounces and passes in time with musical terms that John calls out and illustrates on his violin: pizzicato. Arco. Fortissimo. This could be a coming together for father and daughter, but things between them remain complicated.
Throughout, you get a sense of the playwright trying to find the music in disparate voices, and struggling also to express some of the deepest truths of human existence: truths about art and sport, life and death, music and silence. She wants to articulate things about the ultimate, the ineffable, and since these things cannot really be articulated, she says them through the pure clear sounds of the violin, the sound of the ball and Laura's take-no-prisoners approach to coaching. (Gordon Ramsay fulminating in his various kitchens has nothing on Laura at halftime, berating her losing team and telling a player she looks "like a retard giraffe.")
When Laura talks about diving for the ball, she's talking about living with passion, fervor and determination. This is how Dickey writes. And under the gutsy, subtle direction of Christy Montour-Larson, it's also how the actors perform. Belden's John is so full of a passion that's curdled in his chest that he can't see his living, breathing daughter -- but his violin sings his soul. Tall and rangy, Kate Berry might have been born to play Laura. She has her basketball moves down pat; she hurls herself into action with ferocious courage and abandon. But she also transforms, scene by scene, from a vulnerable child to a stubborn, hurting teenager to a Marine sergeant of a coach. After seeing his performance in Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice some years ago, I called Jim Hunt everyone's dream of a loving father, and so he is here. Except his Ives is also a font of generous wisdom and aesthetic understanding -- matched with a genuinely subversive humor.