Smile Politely

There is no “me” in family

Since my mother passed, I avoid most family gatherings like the superstitious among us avoid crossing the path of black cats or skittering under rickety ladders. I have seen the curses of the past and realize I am far too susceptible to them if I venture back to my family of origin for any significant stay. Moments after stumbling down memory lane, I realize all of my adult accomplishments have vanished, and I’m that naïve schmuck of a child sitting at the children’s table waiting for the blessing to end so I can eat my feelings and drift into a food coma. I’m the geeky kid with the crew-cut, while all my friends have cooler parents who let them grow their tresses into a post-Woodstock fashion statement. It makes me bitter. In a matter of moments, I am transformed into a petulant eleven-year-old whining that what I have to say matters and pouting until someone realizes I’m an adult. In my family, that rarely occurs, so I make my excuses and remain a competent grown up surrounded by my surrogate family through another holiday season.

I was reminded of this personal history while attending the opening night of The Station Theatre’s production of Lee Blessing’s Independence. Blessing’s plays lull you into a false sense of security by the presentation of familiar scenarios that you’ve been taught are safe and comfortable. His ordinary, everyman characters struggle with common-place issues that all can relate to: unrequited and lost love, the fear of aging and mortality, a life irrevocably changed by an undetected sin, and the murky undertow of the emotional complexities of the American family. These are all backdrops to his playful and potent musing about how we live. His gifted prose lures you in with a quaint, homespun tale full of wit and humor, only to strap you down for an emotional rollercoaster ride of the familiar gone amok. Friends become enemies, lovers become betrayers, and those you’ve been nurtured and guided by transform into demons over mashed potatoes and gravy at a holiday dinner. In the end, you are either relieved that your lot is easier than some or left to reflect on how close to your truth the playwright has come. Such is the case with the current Celebration Company production of Blessings’ Independence.

As stated, the power of this script and production is the initial familiarity of the narrative. A panicked call from put-upon sibling, Jo, brings home the child that got away: Kess, a now-adult professional free of her family’s past manipulations, who sets out to efficiently fix the latest familial crisis before returning unscathed to the rewarding life she has created in spite of her background. What Kess doesn’t foresee is how potent the toxic nature of her manipulative mother and their family home can be, and soon she’s stuck with her aforementioned relatives and a sexually precocious little sister, to spice up the mix.

It’s not the most original conceit engineered by a playwright, but Blessing uses humor and realistic characters to show how love and duty rapidly create an emotional quicksand for the most stable and well adjusted among us. The muted, spectral set designed by Moon Jung Kim is full of cracks and imperfections and ghostly frames filled with nothing. Director Deb Richardson wisely lets her characters and impressive actors take the foreground as the story unfolds. Richardson’s direction emphasizes the delicate family dynamic of these women and allows her actresses to build a series of honest, human moments that will elicit both laughter and trepidation from the most cynical of audience members.

The acting is uniformly solid with some moments of truly lovely work. J. Malia Andrus as the no-nonsense Kess embodies the controlled problem-solver with a realism and empathy that makes you worry for her as she is drawn into her mother’s web. Martha Mills gives a sweetness and frailty to the good-girl sister, Jo, in the initial moments of the piece, and finds a strength and fury in her character’s efforts to gain control over her passive existence as the play progresses. As the youngest sister, Sherry, Jessa Thomas give a vivacious and animated performance as the teenage good-time girl trapped in her small town home. Her energy and sarcasm ring true throughout and provide a comic, infectious energy to the piece, even as her desperation to escape her existence becomes heartbreaking. The three actors are a lovely set of siblings, and their interactions ring true with the audience.

As Evelyn, the manipulative and combustible matriarch of this clan, Nancy Keener begins as a soft and frail presence, perhaps a bit too soft for the rage teeming under her needy veneer. Her performance takes flight as she shows her threatening and malicious side. Those moments of her performance are truly chilling and are a nice counterpoint to the final moments of the play.

The characters’ personalities are clearly defined by the homey, small town costume design of Erin Miller. A special moment in the costuming is Kess’ deteriorating fashion sense as she becomes a surrogate care-taker for her combustible mother, and Sherry’s flirtatious and provocative fashion statements define her character immediately for the audience. This said, the pauses in action between scenes that allow for costume changes, though pleasantly accompanied by sound design by Aaron Polk and Mike Prosise, drag a bit and weaken the emotional punch of some moments.

The production values are predominantly solid, though some of the set construction flaws may not be an intentional component of the design concept. Additionally, the final lighting effect, designed by Bob Weber, is a bit too startling and foreign since it is the only time the lights shift from an overly bright general illumination that doesn’t quite capture the murky and ambiguous emotional atmosphere of the piece.

In the end, this is a vehicle for strong performances by four solid actresses and each has their moment to shine under Richardson’s intelligent direction. There are plenty of laughs in this evening of theatre, as well as some moments of reflection that last long after the curtain falls. As we exited, another audience member voiced relief about his own family after viewing this play. I was struck by the familiarity of this family’s prickly dynamic. For the record, I vacillated between good girl and good time girl throughout my adolescence, though the latter was accomplished in a very stealthy fashion, or as stealthy as a 15-year-old can manage with a curfew and swing choir rehearsals. Whatever your history, you should make it a point to see this compelling and entertaining play!

Lee Blessing’s Independence runs at The Station Theatre in Urbana, November 29–December 2, December 5–9, and December 12–15. All performances are at 8 p.m. and each runs under two hours. Tickets are $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays. The Station Theatre is located at 223 North Broadway in Urbana and parking is free at the Save-A-Lot next door. For reservations call 384-4000 or reserve online.

Photos by Eric Ponder.

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