Chicago Theatre Review
Sibling Rivalry and Half-baked Moments
Sycamore – Raven
Budding new playwright Sarah Sander has written a drama that probes some of the problems that may be festering in certain Midwestern suburban homes. A model family, consisting of two parents and their two teenage kids, who go to work, cook the meals, clean the house and grow their own produce in their backyard greenhouse, at first glance seem as perfect as a Norman Rockwell painting. Yet, brewing inside are dilemmas and insecurities no one ever suspects until they really get to know the people.
Teens Celia and Henry are brother and sister with a long history of sibling rivalry, both for their parents’ attention and for the notice of every good-looking boy who stumbls into their world. Complicating matters, Celia is a pretty, bored cheerleader who’s participation in sports is only to garner the love of her mom and dad. She’d much rather be spending her time onstage performing in the high school play. Henry is a model student and, for the same reasons, avidly participates in student council and other scholastic clubs and organizations. His rivalry for his parent’s affection drives Henry to even consider auditioning for the school play, once more competing with his sister. There’s also the fact that Henry likes to “borrow” Celia’s clothing, sometimes with frustrating or embarrassing results. And the siblings often find themselves jealously competing with each other for the same boy.
Enter John, the hunky new high school boy-next-door. He has his own history of problems and challenges, not the least of which is a divorced, alcoholic mother and a predictable past of addiction to pot and booze. He’s also a creative young man, enjoying photography and foreign films, and who attracts the attention of both Henry and Celia. John claims to have “experimented” with same sex relations in the same way he’s dabbled with marijuana and wine. Perhaps, since he’s still young, and life is always filled with options, John may eventually decide he’s bisexual.The young man flirts endlessly with both Henry and Celia, like a cat toying with a mouse that he eventually intends to devour.
The adults in this play are also far from perfect. David, Henry and Celia’s father, is a burnt-out college professor who’s recently found more satisfaction cooking part time at a local diner. Far from living up to his potential, but fulfilling a need for service and creativity, David, to the frustration of his wife and kids, is seldom around. Louise, David’s equally frustrated spouse, sometimes attends church, often cooks the meals (when David isn’t taking over the kitchen) and is obsessed with puttering around her greenhouse growing herbs and vegetables, which she shares with her neighbors. Louise’s seemingly perfect suburban life is riddled with annoyance at her husband’s midlife crisis, her chagrin at not being able to connect with her own kids and a simple lack of personal fulfillment. When she meets Jocelyn, her new neighbor, who is John’s single, wine-guzzling mother, Louise feels that, perhaps, she’s finally found someone in whom she can confide.
In many ways Sander’s play resembles a modern day Peyton Place, the sensational 1950’s novel, film and TV series that focused on three ostensibly model families in the suburbs whose problems and scandals, once hidden behind their white picket fences, ultimately become exposed. The problem with Sarah Sander’s play is that she introduces seven troubled characters, depicts their current situation, as well as touching on their backstories, and then tries to wrap everything up in just 75 minutes. The playwright simply covers too much in too little time. Had she only focused on, say, Henry’s emotional problems, his thwarted attraction to the new neighbor boy, his recovery from depression and his sibling rivalry for parental attention, Ms. Sander would have had enough material for a full-length drama. The playwright might’ve even paralleled David’s discontent with his son’s problems, again writing all of this as a longer version of the play. The adage “less is more” is generally always a valid consideration. It certainly is here.
The reliable and extremely talented director Devon de Mayo does everything she can to bring this overstuffed, underdeveloped script come to life. Her cast is talented enough, with Selina Fillinger and Robyn Coffin the standouts, playing the drama’s strongest characters. They both work hard to supply enough subtext to make both Celia and Louise fully fleshed-out. Sander seems to have spent more time creating these two characters, allowing them a few scenes in which we truly come to understand what makes them tick. This is particularly true for Ms. Fillinger’s Celia, whose portrayal is well-rounded. Robyn Coffin’s talent is how, in fewer lines and less stage time, she brings honesty and believability to her role. Tom Hickey, excellent in any part he plays, just doesn’t have a role that provides him enough with which to play. The actor, however, does everything he can to make David three-dimensional. Notice the guarded looks, the subtle, conflicted expressions that say more than his actual dialogue, and you’ll see an actor at the top of his game.
Either because of Sander’s inadequacy in writing these characters, or because of the actors’ lack of experience, Johnathan Nieves, as John, and lovely Jaslene Gonzalez, as Jocelyn, seem particularly shallow. Nieves is pretty good as a teenager battling his own demons while trying to care for his alcoholic mother. He’s also working through his own path in life. Often, Johnathan seems to be flailing, searching for something to simply grasp onto, particularly in his scenes with Henry. Ms. Gonzalez plays Jocelyn with an understandable laid back quality that supports her continual self-medication. She’s parental with both John and Henry and is appropriately friendly with her new neighbors.
However, there’s an interesting moment late in the play that feels underdeveloped. It’s one of many. Following a party, during which Louise has worn painful heels for the first time in a while, Jocelyn offers to massage her new friend’s feet. Something unspoken seems to be happening here. Is Jocelyn merely showing kindness and empathy for her new friend or is there something more? Is she coming on to her neighbor, now that she’s single and free. Louise mentions earlier that she and her college roommate had been wild together, back in the day, and had even shared a kiss. Are these two women poised to become something more than just neighbors? This could’ve been an entire play, all its own. Sander’s script is filled with half-baked moments like this that simply go nowhere.
Julian Larach’s boyishly handsome Henry feels the least genuine of the cast. It may be the actor’s lack of experience, a college sophomore who’s still learning his craft. But he plays Henry as a seesaw of broad extremes. One minute the boy’s sullen and quietly pining or pouting; the next he’s exploding with more emotion than the scene demands. Once again, part of the problem is Sander’s script, which places Henry on a roller coaster of emotions that never fully has time to develop or resolve. One more problem with Mr. Larach’s performance is that he rushes through his lines. Consonants are often dropped and entire words are sometimes swallowed. It becomes difficult to understand everything the boy is saying.
Like Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s beautiful, skeletal scenic design, Sarah Sander’s play is a fragmented a script. She’s tried to force too much drama in a mere 75 minutes. As a result, there’s no opportunity for any plot development, and the conclusion seems too neatly wrapped up in a matter of minutes. Better that the playwright had chosen one or two characters or elements on which to focus. Perhaps, at some later date, she might flesh out some of these ideas into one, longer play. Both director Devon de Mayo and her competent cast, several of whom show brilliance, do everything in their power to make this drama breathe some real life. It’s simply a problem of an overstuffed play, trying to present too much in too short a time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 13-April 29 by Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.