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Homecoming proves male virgin/whore fantasy

THE HOMECOMING

Written by Harold Pinter.

Directed by David Wheeler.

Starring Jeremy Geidt, Mark Zeisler, William Young, Robert Stanton, Steven Skybell, and Christine Estabrook.

At the American Repertory Theatre to Jan. 25.

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By CHRISTINA BOYLE

HAROLD PINTER'S The Homecoming is not the typical tale of the prodigal son. Anxiety over the role of the female in the family household suggests that the play is as much a story of homecoming for the wife of the prodigal son as it is for the returning son himself. The American Repertory Theatre's production of The Homecoming was provocative and exciting and gave the audience the feeling of active involvement in the plot throughout.

Teddy (Steven Skybell), an American professor of philosophy, returns with his wife to his childhood home in north London. He introduces his wife Ruth (Christine Estabrook) to the all-male enclave where father Max (Jeremy Geidt), brothers Lenny (Mark Zeisler) and Joey (Robert Stanton), and aged uncle Sam (William Young) reside. The home -- more like a bachelor's pad -- is a war zone where frustrated men with large egos take turns exchanging insults, and berating and extolling the virtues of women. Ruth's presence is at first interpreted in the worst of ways and her purity is automatically questioned until it is affirmed that she is both mother and wife.

What becomes evident as the play unfolds is that the death of Jessie, Teddy's mother, threw the family into chaos. While in the past Jessie was the focal point of unity and harmony, Max -- the bereft father -- cannot provide for the family's emotional needs.

Jessie, short for Jezebel, was both virgin and whore in the men's eyes. The language in the play, intermittently profane, works to show that each character sees women in a violently polarized fashion -- either good or bad. The interesting twist is that being a whore is not necessarily bad. In fact, each character demands or condones whore-like qualities in all women. For instance, Lenny happens to be part-time pimp, and bachelor-uncle Sam chauffeured Jessie during her affair with a family friend. In addition, Ruth's former profession was a photographer's "model."

Soon after Ruth's introduction to the family, they think of her as a replacement for Jessie. As soon as her capabilities of both mother and whore are proven, she is elevated to the status of queen. This realization takes place in a wild scene when Teddy is trying to usher Ruth out of the house to leave for America; Teddy must have made the connection of what his male relatives had in store for Ruth.

But the family asks Ruth to stay, with the provision that she earns her own keep. Teddy submits to the family's wishes, and just when it seems consensus has set in place a disturbing future for Ruth, she enters the room and ruptures their agreements. With the poise of a businesswoman she negotiates and actually accepts the deal -- provided that a contract is drawn. Ruth, the surrogate "Jessie," has come home, at least temporarily.

I was fascinated by the portrayal of Ruth. Estabrook did a wonderful job at communicating the solidity and sexual and intellectual confidence of her character. As Pinter makes women out to be, Ruth is the only whole character. But her wholeness presents a double-edged interpretation of women because part of her superiority rests on her abilities to provide nurturing and -- albeit compromising -- also provide for the natural needs of the men.

The Homecoming provides the playgoer with an exploration of an alternative outlook of the female role in the household. Somewhat outrageous to think about at first, Pinter suggests through The Homecoming that the matriarch function as both virgin and whore or both mother and lover. As a woman, it is a guided tour through male fantasy. Thought provoking and superbly acted, The Homecoming is a play to see.