Hard choices face a farm family in 'Husbandry'

Husbandry Play by Patrick Tovatt. Directed by Jon Jory

Whether as a concept, a calling, or a title, ''Husbandry'' has a reassuring ring to it. Agriculturally applied, the word evokes images of well-tended orchards, straight furrows, and (to borrow from the old gospel hymn) ''bringing in the sheaves.'' Yet, apart from its author's concern for the plight of the American family farm, there is nothing reassuring about ''Husbandry,'' the thoughtful and ultimately painful new drama at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Downstage on East 73rd Street.

Playwright Patrick Tovatt interrelates the problems facing the family farm and the farm family through the hard choices facing the Halsteads. Elderly Les Halstead (Richard Hamilton) is caught in the bind confronting many an American farmer: the difference between the high costs of everything he requires and the inadequate prices received for everything he produces.

Even being paid not to overproduce bothers him. ''What is overproduction when a third of the world is starving?'' he asks. ''Husbandry'' raises a number of such troubling questions, for which neither the experts - nor Mr. Tovatt - seem to have the answers.

The author does isolate and attack one particular aspect of the family-farm problem: continuity. The Halsteads' son, Harry, and his wife, Bev, (James Rebhorn and Deborah Hedwall) have made the eight-hour drive to his parents' home for what turns out to be an emotional airing of mountingly critical family concerns. Should Harry give up his job as a city park department employee to return home and become his father's partner in the farm operation? And should Bev be expected to sacrifice her own advancing career in a last-ditch effort to help the Halsteads' farm survive?

In a play that lasts some 90 minutes and is acted without intermission, Mr. Tovatt gives everyone a fair hearing. Harry agonizes indecisively. His mother fiercely states the case for family loyalty. His gentler father tentatively proposes the partnership. A desperate Bev declares her violent opposition to a plan which would shatter her own professional hopes.

''Husbandry'' is galvanized - though not necessarily strengthened - by the long-distance crisis that arises when the younger Halsteads' daughter is hospitalized after a sudden illness. The action that ends the play leaves unresolved the questions it has raised. And Mr. Tovatt leaves the impression that there is scant hope for anything but a marginal solution for the elder Halsteads.

Within its modest framework, ''Husbandry'' deals honestly, intelligently, and sympathetically with a group of decent human beings whose predicament has broad implications. Whether reminiscing over a family album, pausing for grace before dinner, or expressing their deep convictions, the Halsteads command respect and concern. Nor is ''Husbandry'' lacking in occasional comedy.

Save for some possibly overstrenuous emphases, the production has been believably staged by Jon Jory. Miss Cromwell and Miss Hedwall bring the assurance that comes from re-creating the roles they originated at the 1984 New Play Festival of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The characterizations by newcomers Hamilton and Rebhorn fit comfortably into this farm-family portrait.

''Husbandry'' has been attractively designed by David Jenkins (set), Marcia Dixcy (costumes), and F. Mitchell Dana (lighting).

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