It can be bizarre how dramatic works exploring similar ideas can gestate in the artistic Zeitgeist at roughly the same time—ideas that may, in some ways, reflect the openness of their era to deal with them, but not so essentially that they reflect the era itself—and that’s what we have with Daisy Foote’s Him and Deanna Jent’s Falling, opening in little more than a week of each other uptown at 59E59 and downtown at the Minetta Lane, respectively.
Both deal with a small, financially struggling family carrying the extra responsibility—or burden—of a grown relative who needs adult supervision.
Him, set in early New Millennium New Hampshire, focuses on money itself—the strains brought on by the lack of it, and the changes that come with acquisition. The family is of an unusual composition for a household too, as all three are siblings. There’s older spinster sister Pauline (Hallie Foote) and her younger gay brother Henry (Tim Hopper) trying desperately, to keep the family store alive, while tending to their younger brother Farley (Adam LeFevre), who is in his 30s, retarded and needful of routine. The family store is what their offstage, unheard, bedridden father (the “Him” of the title) has bequeathed to them, figuratively at first, and literally when he dies…along with a lot more Pauline and Henry never imagined was there. The related sub-story has to do with Farley and how changes like death and first-time sexual interaction throw his once very regimented world into a kind of turmoil that requires slow, tortuous adjustment.
For all that Him follows a cleanly delivered narrative with quite well drawn characters, all excellently played (the fourth being the autistic young woman who, with her mother, has moved in across the street: Louise in the person of Adina Verson) under the likewise sure-handed direction of Evan Yionoulis, it still winds up being an unclear play. Unclear of purpose, that is. The scenes are punctuated by interludes in which the actors step out of their roles to recite excerpts from their father’s private notebook journals over the years…only (and I don’t know if this is intentional or not) it isn’t immediately clear that such journals are the source; in part because their existence is not defined until after Him’s death, in part because the subject matter of the excerpts at first seems to be coming from various sources. That the excerpts are recited by the various actors enables the misapprehension. (There’s nothing wrong with withholding information that involves a point of suspense or plot/character revelation; but to be withholding about information needed to create emotional context is a risky and usually backfire-prone strategy. I checked my first, mistaken impression against the impressions of some others who saw the play and it was not a singular impression.) Weirdly, though, even if one understands the literary conceit of the excerpts from the beginning, the spectre of Him, the looming, domineering shadow that enforces dutiful, restrictive obligation and debt in life, and offers them a path to liberation in death, is never the visceral presence for the audience that the play keeps telling us he is for the surviving family he has sired. What we feel more is the shadow cast first by debt and later by sudden fortune. I won’t say that makes Him a cool affair…but it certainly fails to deliver the emotional heat it keeps talking about.
Falling, however, is about nothing but emotional heat. It tells the story of a family dealing daily with a grown, autistic child. Josh (Daniel Everidge) is 17 but looks older—he is also very big, obese and physically powerful. He goes to a daily school for challenged people, but his parents Tami (Julia Murney) and Bill (Daniel Pearce) have not yet found the residence facility they would trust to house him permanently. So they wrangle him daily, with painstaking routine and ritual to maintain his fragile emotional stability, and the bouts of frightening violence—a child’s tantrums in a sumo wrestler’s body—that are sometimes absent for weeks but can show up at a moment’s instigation. The play also dramatizes the toll all this takes on their teenage daughter Lisa (Jacey Powers) who doesn’t feel the same obligation to love Josh. Somewhat changing the daily dynamic is the visit of Bill’s mom, Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), who is sometimes a little too quick, for Tami and Bill’s sensibility, to depend on Scripture and prayer as a catchall solution.
What this play has in mind is very clear. It explores, as the playwright herself articulated, “what it’s like to love someone who’s difficult to love.” Which despite the extremity of Josh as an example, is a universal theme. Under the direction of Lori Adams, who helms a fiercely committed cast, it works spectacularly. Everidge’s Josh, especially is an unforgettable portrait of a Kindergarten mind and a child’s developing co-ordination trapped in a man’s fully matured body. Almost as indelible is Julia Murney’s portrait of a devoted mother who simply refuses to be overtaken by impatience, or to consider defeat as an option. However, in a way I won’t spoil, the playwright, Ms. Jent, does allow Tami to experience the sensation of cathartic release. (I will “footnote” academically, however, that device unintentionally echoes a conceptually similar [though thematically dissimilar] device used for a scene in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.)
While I don’t believe in “Less is more” as a catchall—sometimes more is more—Ms. Jent accomplishes her goal in a compact, intermissionless 75 minutes. But it’s a very rich 75, in its quite distinct way very like Margaret Edson’s Wit in being a striking, bracing and original look at the intimate personal consequences of an unwanted, not-uncommon circumstance delivered by a random biological roll of the dice.
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