2015 Capital Fringe Review: ‘A Family Reunion’

The words “family reunion” are bound to evoke mixed memories, no matter whose family it is. That said, I’d wager there are few whose mixture is as experientially eclectic—and as psychologically toxic—as the one we visit in Larry Blossom’s play. As we enter, the set is simple, yet ghostly: the stage is almost bare; a sofa covered with a white sheet falling to the floor sits stage left, beside it a large brown paper bag, its contents partially visible.  At center stage stands a tall, slender rack, similarly covered; a small round patio table and two chairs are at stage right. A lightweight, translucent white cloth covers the back of the stage. It will take on different hues, responding to the mood of the scene.

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The music that greets us (Zip Zapper, aka: Thomas Ashcom) begins as a blend of violins, horn and piano in a combination contemporary/light-jazz vein, a glockenspiel’s fairy-like tones occasionally chiming in, then moves to a softly mysterious, yet unthreatening, minor key.

We are, in short, both prepared—and deceived.

A stocky older woman in floor-length gray dress and white kerchief comforts a frightened young woman dressed in black, her long blond hair held back in like manner, who cradles an infant in a pale blue blanket. Oma—the first perversion we will come across in the play: “Oma” is German for Grandma—orders the girl to drink from a cup, telling her it is part of a divine plan. The girl pretends to. The old woman does; shudders; and dies. She will, however, return—in nightmares.

Jamie Crowne’s Oma is cruel and boot-camp tough. Yet the occasional fleeting glint in her eyes and near-imperceptible hesitation suggest a trapped, helpless, beaten-down soul who over the long years, has forged her pain into a weapon. As Hagar, the name given the erstwhile Sara by the cult who kidnaped her, Dana Maas evinces an angelic obedience both inherent (we will watch, in flashback, as she trustingly, unquestioningly, fatally heeds her older brother) and inculcated that has not been able to eradicate her innate intelligence, independence, and instinct for self-preservation.

We are now in an upper-class California home: all is bright, crisp, clear and new, from the lighting  (by Elliot Lanes) and minimal furnishings to the characters’ clothing (uncredited). Christer (Bill Wilburn), his shock of white hair set off by a lemon-yellow polo shirt and white shorts, is on the phone. Wilburn’s Christer is a forthright, no-nonsense businessman and devoted husband and father who in this moment is disconcertingly caught between the two. We see his interlocutor across the stage: A compactly built, muscular young black man in bright tank top and dark shorts is alternately threatening and tentatively engaging him. They are father and son, and have not spoken in fifteen years.

The relationship between Bill and his wife, Emily (Yvonne Paretzky), on the other hand, is open, honest and loving; Wilburn and Paretzky feel natural together, like two people who have known and lived with each other for decades. Yet Emily, who gave up a promising career as an actress to devote her life to her family, has been more discernibly, and more consequentially shaken by the loss of her children, and has been seeing a therapist (a Jewish man who, in another twist, “was raised by Nazi sympathizers”; in yet another, Sara’s captors, we will learn, were virulently anti-Semitic).

But Emily does have more to deal with than her husband: Sara, who has been rescued and returned to her home and whose traumatic experience has caused her to block out her past life, keeps asking how her mother could be a black woman. Sara’s torment, as wracking as it was both psychologically and physically, was—if narcissistic, sadistic child sexual abuse can conceivably be measured, compared or quantified—less horrific than her brother’s: “sold” at the age of nine, Joey would become the plaything and poster boy for a pedophile sex trafficker, his boyfriends and customers.

In the midst of this litany of tragedy and human bondage are intervals of humor and bathos. As the savvy and practical, warm and wisecracking Gabriella, who has worked for the family since the children were small and can both see and cut through the walls they set up, and the delusions they’ve allowed to build up, Guiselle Ramirez-Lema captures the spirit and fiber of the character with élan and gentle wisdom.

As the third, “unkidnaped” child Annelise and her husband Isaac, Carolyn Burke, and Peter O’Shanick, at least for a time, bring an element of easy everydayness that allows the audience to relax before the next dramatic or violent encounter. Secondary as they may be to the main story, Isaac and Annelise will also have their mettle tested. Burke’s Annelise is a refreshing, even-natured, but firmly commonsensical presence; she and O’Shanick, whose Isaac runs for health and exercise and generally finds reason for hope in the world, provide a point of identification, an anchor for us when everyone else seems to be drowning, or pulling someone else under.

Dana Maas and Ben Harris.
Dana Maas and Ben Harris.

Having ended the conversation with his father on an unresolved note, Joey (whom everyone calls Josef; in fact, for those in the know, the play is replete with German references) finds his way in to the house and sacks out on the couch—where he will be a welcome surprise to Emily, who enters in the middle of the night, a bottle of liquor in one hand, a blunt in the other. Not because she knows who he is; but because she doesn’t. And finds the strapping young man attractive, as well as an untapped potential source of sympathy and understanding. “I wasn’t always like this,” she tells him after teasingly coming on to him, feeling the effects of the weed and the booze. “I lost hope.” We feel her despair; even Joey, toughened by years of brutality, regards her with a tentative, if unacknowledged glimmering of sympathy.

Joey’s need to prove his might—or, perhaps more frankly and more essentially, to not be a victim—is countered by his ambivalence about his sexuality, which, given the circumstances of his “discovery” of it may, or may not, actually represent its nature. (One of the T-shirts he wears bears a single word: “woof.” Being sexually approached by his mother—whom he hasn’t seen since he was a little boy, and who certainly has no idea who he is—must be for him a head trip that needs no acid.

As Joey, Ben Harris is a quiet powerhouse. His torment is unending, because it was for so long externally—and continues to be, for that and other reasons, internally—inflicted. Harris creates a simmering tension, a ticking time bomb that explodes without warning—and to cataclysmic effect. In one of the play’s most shattering, as well as dramatically gratifying scenes, O’Shanick is a match for him: Joey, who understandably abhors the good-natured, well-meaning Isaac’s sense of well-being tries, with a self-righteous (if fully earned) I’ll-wipe-that-smile-off-your-face fury, to decimate it with XXX-rated videos of his own abuse. Isaac’s reaction is a slow study in unbearable agony, and, as with Harris, pays off dramatic dividends for those who can bear to watch it. Both are masterful.

The only very small quibble I’d have is that there seem to be one or two missing pieces, either of dialogue or of action, or perhaps of linearity.  Regardless, this is one family reunion you should go to. (You may, however, want to take a drag or two before you do.)

A Family Reunion plays through July 24, 2015 at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab II – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Read the preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts.



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