Rand Higbee’s “At Home With the Clarks,” receiving its premiere production at Anchorage Community Theatre this month, is set in 1967 but opens like a ‘50s-era family sitcom. A voice-over announcer introduces the characters — working dad, homemaker mom, high school daughter and little brother — as they stroll into their suburban living room and gives the title of tonight’s episode, “The Prom.”
For a while it feels like a spoof on the old television genre, a breed that survived in one form or another through “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show” and beyond. Desparate for a date, daughter Betty (Karina Becker) weighs the shocking possibility of asking a boy to the prom. The folks are dubious but Betty’s friend Wanda (Erin Lindsay King), with whom little brother Timmy, aka “Tiger” (Aaron Bell), is infatuated, thinks its a fine, progressive idea.
Things abruptly go awry when a newscaster announces that Cub fixture Ernie Banks has been traded to San Francisco. Wanda becomes anxious, muttering, “That never happened.” We’ll soon learn that she’s from the future.
Back in the ‘60s, however, World War III breaks out.
“World War III!” cries Betty. “Well, there goes the prom!”
The younger folks head to the basement while mom (Rachel Gregory) and dad (Bill McAllister) chat about dinner, what happened at work and the odd behavior of their kids over the squeal of sirens, doubting that the bombs are really coming until they see the mushroom cloud.
When the action resumes the survivors struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by zombies.
That Higbee is able to resolve all of this in a happy ending that remains true to the sitcom model speaks to his ability as a craftsman. The two-hour play has no downtime. Humorous references abound to products widely advertised in the era and technological restraints that might baffle the younger crowd. Like: “Someday they’ll make a television set that, when you turn it on, actually turns on.”
Woven with the jokes and clever patter, though not apparent for a while, are observations on time, change and tradition. A former high school teacher, Higbee tosses in a few didactic moments. Young Tiger learns the value of knowing binary numbers and the difference between figurative and literal.
Like his early comedy, “The Head That Wouldn’t Die,” “Clarks” is not terribly profound, but cunningly constructed and full of laughs. I found the conclusion very satisfying, a character thought to be bumbling coming out as the hero, a setting of things right that those familiar with “Star Trek” should see coming, except that the playwright doesn’t give it away until the right moment. The transition in observations that initially sound as if they came from Robert Young and later as if they were scripted for Captain Kirk provides a splendid allusion to the overarching idea of generational and technological shifts.
Directed by Nate Benson, there is excellent acting from Gregory, McAllister, Becker and Bell, who remain solidly in their camp characters with just enough independent flair to make them convincing. King was more than a little stiff on opening night and Bradford Jackson, as a radio announcer who fights through the zombies to reach the Clark house, was way over the top, a wild and loud persona I wouldn’t have recognized in 1967, either in person or on a TV show. In fairness to the actors, these two roles are outside the “Father Knows Best” formula and — for all I’ve said about the craftsmanship of the play — might benefit from rewriting.
AT HOME WITH THE CLARKS by Rand Higbee will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 31 at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave. Tickets are available at actalaska.org or by calling 868-4913.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.