Damn Things Will Kill Ya is an unabashed accomplishment for recent (May 2023) American University grad Olivia Luzquinos. It is the first time AU has mounted a full production of a new play by an alumnus. And this production was directed by professor and respected director Aaron Posner. While I was standing in the hallway during intermission on opening night, I got to witness as Luzquinos was introduced by Posner to János Szász, the director of Arena Stage’s recent production of Angels in America. Quite heady stuff for a young playwright, and it speaks to the respect these theater professionals hold for the evident promise this play shows.
The play depicts a trio of West Virginia siblings as they come together in response to the hospitalization of their mother after she attempts to commit suicide: an event prompted by the mother’s fear of being rendered helpless, dependent on her unreliable and contentious children, and in pain as she approaches death from cancer with its assumed accompanying dementia. Unresolved family dynamics and unspoken resentments and disappointments are explored with clear-eyed compassion, acceptance, grace, and, above all, humor by the playwright. Throughout the play, Luzquinos’ writing makes clear that these siblings are this mother’s children. Time after time, the mother’s bitter and cutting turns of phrase and tone show up in the siblings’ mouths as they fight to wrest and maintain respect from one another while fending off imminent, and as the play progresses immediate, grief.
If you have ever been a member of a family facing the crisis of an elder dying, you can guess what explosions to expect here. There are some nice surprises that I won’t reveal. The play borders discreetly on magical realism and for those old enough to recall it, possible reminiscences of the movies and TV show Topper. But one of the things that keeps this production buoyant is the unsinkable accents of this family. There is no dialect coach listed. So maybe that was just my imagination. But the cast made it clear in their speech and body movements that these were not people from Farragut North or Manhattan. This insistence on specificity of place and origin was maintained even during the play’s most heated moments (Jamie Lapierre, Connor Reagan, and Julia White).
In Damn Things Will Kill Ya, Luzquinos has written the kinds of lines that actors love to bite into. Tara Giordano as the family matriarch has the bulk of these juicy lines and she gave a master class in how to bite into — and make the most of — the language without chewing the scenery.
The moment you walk into the theater the stage setting alerts you to the fact that nothing in this production is accidental (scenic design, Sofía Olivar). Performing areas were sharply delineated by the placement of furniture and semi-transparent walls. Furniture and walls were shifted from time to time, each time redefining the space with cinematic specificity.
In his program notes, director Posner tells us that playwright Luzquinos “is interested in telling the truth, and happily, she seems unafraid to write about things that are both personal and complicated for her.” And that’s it: even at this stage in Luzquinos’ development, her playwriting is fearless. In Damn Things Will Kill Ya, the playwright seems to seek out the places where there are conversations that characters need to have but would rather avoid, and, lucky for us, she plunges right into them. Seeing aspiring artists at the early stage of their development and accomplishment is one of the irreplaceable rewards of theater that is produced by colleges and universities. It’s something that’s worth taking advantage of.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Damn Things Will Kill Ya runs December 5 to 8, 2023, at 8:00 pm and December 9 at 2:00 pm. and 8 p.m. presented by the American University Department of Performing Arts performing at the Studio Theatre, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($10–$15; free for AU students with an ID) are available online.
COVID Safety: COVID vaccinations and boosters are strongly recommended but are not required for American University community members or guests/visitors.
Damn Things Will Kill Ya by Olivia Luzquinos
Directed by Aaron Posner
Ruth: Tara Giordano
Betty (Cast J): Jamie Lapierre
Betty (Cast Z): Katie Zimmerman
Tommy (Cast J): Connor Reagan
Tommy (Cast Z): Daniel Zavilowitz
Anne (Cast J): Julia White
Anne (Cast Z): Elena Zimmerman
Robin (Cast J): Sedona Salb
Robin (Cast Z): India Mather Gonzales
Nurse (Cast J): Grace Connallon
Nurse (Cast Z): Austin Zielenbach
Ruth Stand-in: Micaela Torregrosa Muñoz
(Cast J: December 5 and 8, 8 pm & December 9, 2 pm.; Cast Z December 6,7, and 9, 8 pm)
CREATIVE AND PRODUCTION STAFF
Director: Aaron Posner
Assistant Director: Abigail Altemose
Intimacy Director: Sierra Young
Lighting Design: Yannick Godts
Costume Design: Becca Janney
Scenic Design: Sofia Olivar
Audio/Sound Design: Andrew Hall
Stage Manager: Alyssa Nolan
Assistant Stage Manager: Danielle Cohen
Assistant Stage Manager: Sabrina Neff
Production Manager: Michael R. Burgtorf
Sound Mentor: Matt Nielson
Stage Management Mentor: Martita Slayden-Robinson
Costume Shop Manager: Sydney Moore
Wardrobe Crew: Sara Wiser
Graduate Production Fellow: Tegan Campbell
Undergraduate Production Assistant: Keren Gorman