Coming of age in an American suburb instilled in me a nearly-pathological sense of curiosity about the lives of others. My conception of family life, assembled from repeated viewings of 90s teen dramas, did not align with the reality of my immigrant family, so I wondered what the scenes playing out in the ticky-tacky houses down the road were like. Were those families like mine or like on television? What did they fight about? Were they happy?
CollaborationTown’s The Family Play: 1979 to Present feels like an amalgam of those imagined scenes. Written by Boo Killebrew, Geoffrey Decas O’ Donnell and Jordan Seavey, the play is a thirty-five year flashback told in two hours. To be honest, I didn’t understand what it was supposed to be about when I bought a ticket, but the first scene wins me over.
A nuclear family sits down for a dinner that quickly slips into screaming and frustration. The interaction seems so genuine, it’s almost too awkward to watch, but the apparent verisimilitude of this scene (and similar ones to come) is what makes it charming and funny. There is no straightforward plot, though time is a constant that ushers the audience through scenes of childhood, then adolescence, then the characters’ 20s and lastly their 30s. The scenes are quick and so are the transitions between them. The effect is a bit like flipping through hundreds of television channels but slowly, the seemingly disparate vignettes come together to portray the zeitgeist of each life stage.
Childhood features parents worried about their kids’ reading levels and which parent gets to be the fun one. Amidst the humorous bits, there are parts where parents scream at each other as frightened children stand uncomfortably before them. There, the writing and the acting capture the visceral discomfort and helplessness of a kid watching their parents bickering. Adolescence shows teenagers in all of their awkward, moody and horny glory. The 20s are embarrassingly accurate. I’m still sympathy-cringing at the part where a drunk woman chases down a guy and asks him what happened to their relationship. The 30s deal with divorce, mortgages and children. This appears to resonate with the audience, although I find it a bit tedious. In all fairness, the quality of the material is not the issue. Rather, the implications of that age are still abstractions and/or truths I don’t want to accept yet. If anything the last part of The Family Play makes me anxious that adulthood (actual, can’t-be-on-your-parent’s-health-insurance-anymore adulthood) will be bleak, but O’ Donnell’s concluding soliloquy about evolution, the cosmos and the meaning of family is slightly comforting.
What’s amazing is that the set is basically a circular wooden platform with nothing on it. (Well, sometimes, there are chairs on it.) The Family Play is essentially two hours of conversations on an empty stage but it manages to evoke so much in part because of the wonderful dialogue. But also, the actors are immensely believable as the multiplicity of characters they play. Playwrights Killebrew and O’ Donnell act alongside Eboni Bodoni, Jorge Codova, Mark Junek and Theresa Plaehn. They’re each fully capable of playing ever-shifting ages and roles, and they perform with boundless energy. (I’m worried about their knees, though. There’s a lot of jumping on and off that stage.)
The blend of familial minutiae with navel-gaze-y meditations works for The Family Play. At times, it feels like a Douglas Coupland novel turned into a YouTube series: dramatic but earnest, fun-funny AND tragic-funny and most of all, something I would totally watch.
A Family Play (1979 to Present) is at the New Ohio Theatre until May 16.