Spine: Review of ‘The Full Catastrophe’ at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Michael Weller’s The Full Catastrophe, based on a novel by David Carkeet, is a comedy, a comedy about marriage and those longing for marriage. It is light-hearted and fun, well acted and directed, and the audience sits as part of its suburban, bourgeois household.

Tom Coiner as Jeremy and Helen Anker as Beth. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Tom Coiner as Jeremy and Helen Anker as Beth. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Yet, there is a “horror” buried deep within the play; but don’t worry, that horror is not as scary as the well off and comfortable might imagine it to be, and it is not anything that happiness and a guilt-free existence can’t cure.

The Full Catastrophe is that dysfunctional family comedy, without the dysfunction; it is that family with a terrible secret comedy, without the terrible secret. In other words, it is that suburban family play anomaly.

At the heart of the light-hearted fun is out of work, PhD linguist Jeremy Cook, a specialist in early childhood language acquisition. Tom Coiner creates this loveable, yet oddly repressed character, and his rapport with the audience gives Catastrophe its energy.

Jeremy is offered a well paying job by Roy Pillow, CEO of the Pillow Group. Roy is a member of the 1%, one of the ever growing class of billionaires in America. Lee Sellars gives Roy a wonderful, good-natured charm and an unflinching drive.

Lee Sellars as Roy Pillow. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Lee Sellars as Roy Pillow. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Jeremy’s new job is as a marriage counselor—who knew marriage counselors made such good money! But, then, Roy Pillow’s brand of marriage counseling isn’t your normal “sit behind a desk and listen” kind of counseling. His is a 24/7, scientific approach that would exhaust even a healthy couple.

Jeremy enters the home of Paula and Dan Wilson, an upscale couple in suburbia USA, with outdoor grill, little league baseball, and wealthy parents on the wife’s side of the family. Paula and Dan are played by Helen Anker and Cary Donaldson; they give the couple just the right amount of real life love and pissed off annoyance to make them the perfect representatives of marriage.

Their son, Robbie, played fabulously by Sam Shunney, couldn’t be more 11 years old.

Jeremy’s job is to root out the “horror” that is threatening to tear this wonderful family asunder.

Plot number 2 also involves the linguist Jeremy, even though there is absolutely no reason for him to be a linguist, much less an early childhood specialist, as he doesn’t need that expertise to do his job.

'The Full Catastrophe' by Michael Weller. Photo by Seth Freeman.
‘The Full Catastrophe’ by Michael Weller. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Jeremy, it seems, has profound difficulty admitting he loves any one, particularly the love of his life, Beth. Beth, who is also played by Helen Anker, is an MIT grad student in anthropology who could not be more good natured and direct.

When Jeremy enters the Wilson’s home to fix their problems and meets Paula, who happens to look just like his Beth—well, you see where this is going, and it is fun and “horror” for everyone.

The multi-talented T. Ryder Smith offers up a host of characters, most notably a big breasted blonde who earned an ovation after leaving the stage with a smirk.  Who said a bit of farce isn’t appropriate for every show?

Directed by Ed Herendeen, The Full Catastrophe keeps true to its light-hearted tone throughout.

Set Designer Peter Ksander and lighting designer D. M. Wood create the iconic suburban setting, with costume designer Therese Bruck providing the casual wear.

To be sure, The Full Catastrophe will not make you reevaluate your marriage, or your divorce, or your values; but no matter your current condition or state of affairs, you’ll find yourself chuckling throughout..


The Full Catastrophe plays through August 2, 2015, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing in the Marinoff Theater – Center for Contemporary Arts/II – 62 West Campus Drive, in Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call the box office at (304) 876-3473/(800) 999-2283, or purchase them online.

The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 5: Playwright Michael Weller on ‘The Full Catastrophe’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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