High bidding abounds in ‘Auctioning the Ainsleys’ 

A lively play in a good production, the world premiere of Laura Schellhardt’s “Auctioning the Ainsleys” is opening TheatreWorks’ 2010-11 season, the company’s 41st.

It is an Arthur Miller-lite sort of family drama, attempting to present some deep truths. Expect instead an entertaining, well-made soap opera, with excellent ensemble acting that comes close to covering up the problem of caricature-like characters.

Meredith McDonough’s dynamic direction and Annie Smart’s impressive revolving set (looming amazingly large on Lucie Stern Theatre’s small stage) make major contributions to the production.

The play tracks the unraveling of the Ainsleys as the matriarch of the family (Diane Dorsey) is dealing with Alzheimer’s, and hires a caretaker (Lance Gardner) to prepare an inventory of objects and of the residents’ lives.

Four adult children of variously (but equally exaggerated) dysfunctional lives are forced to face big changes in the near future.

Auctioning is the central theme of the play — from the obsessive occupation of the long-dead father, to the oldest daughter (Heidi Kettenring) appearing both as a shadow-auctioneer and a major character, to the impact of the coming liquidation of property on everybody.

One daughter, Annalee (Molly Anne Coogan), wields a stapler to file and save objects. Another, Amelia (Jessica Lynn Carroll) shifts back and forth between mild-mannered musings and near-psychotic eruptions.

The son, Aiden (Liam Vincent), is a puzzling cypher, living an empty life in an empty room.

All this works fairly well in the 45-minute, mostly comic first act, but becomes ponderous in the hourlong, more dramatic second act.

Company director Robert Kelley’s program notes speak of “the power of the family, the terror of change, and connections between the trappings of our lives and truths of our selves,” but the play presents only the ambition for such lofty heights.

“Ainsleys” is the opener both for the TheatreWorks season and the company’s ninth New Works Festival, running Aug. 8-22. The Microsoft-sponsored festival presents new musicals, new plays, a cabaret concert and a panel discussion.

Theater Review

Auctioning the Ainsleys

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: 7:30 p.m. most Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 8

Tickets: $19 to $69

Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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