Scott McPherson’s complex, hilarious and tragic play has luminescent performances not only from leads Mary Steenburgen and Jean Smart, but from the sparkling ensemble cast under gifted director Dennis Erdman.
Playwright McPherson died of AIDS in 1992, shortly after the play opened to critical raves Off-Broadway. There is a premature wisdom at work here, a gift not simply from a promising young writer, but from a man facing an early death and struggling to make sense of this world before he leaves it.
While the play prances across the American landscape of dysfunctional families, disease and shattered dreams, McPherson didn’t have much time for doom and gloom. Much of the play is hysterically funny, with priceless characters that leave the audience dizzy with laughter.
At the tragicomic center of the play is Bessie (Mary Steenburgen), the dutiful daughter who has spent much of her life taking care of both her stroke-paralyzed father and her Aunt Ruth, who suffers from an eccentric mix of ailments and insecurities.
When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, the dysfunctional center of the family implodes with the arrival of estranged sister Lee (Jean Smart) and her two sons, Hank (Chad Cox) and Charlie (Jonathan Charles Kaplan).
Everybody’s got problems in this family. Lee bounces from man to man as she struggles to ram her brand of love down her children’s throats.
Hank is in a mental institution after burning down his mother’s house. And Charlie can’t take his nose out of a book, even at Disney World. Despite more pain and suffering than three TV movies, the play has no victims, only people struggling in very human, tragicomic ways.
The superb cast, all grounded in the deep, specific truths of their characters, are what make this production soar. Tim Monsion is transcendent as the hapless doctor, fumbling to draw blood while forgetting the patient’s name. Jane Cecil is outstanding as Aunt Ruth, drawing us poignantly and hilariously into her soap opera fantasies.
Cynthia Mace is razor-sharp as the retirement home director with an eye on the bottom line. Jane Galloway is a dead-on hoot as the psychiatrist, and Kaplan and Cox have fine turns as Lee’s beleaguered children, as do Jeb Stuart and Craig Wells in smaller roles.
Smart, continuing her distinguished work on L.A. stages, is terrific here. She brings to her character an in-your-face energy and dynamism that enriches the dark comedic tone of the play. As in her other theater roles, notably in Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild,” She rips open the excruciating suffering of her character with brilliant results.
At the heart of the emotional architecture of the play, however, is Steenburgen, who couples the internal, somewhat troubled persona of her film roles with a gifted comic exuberance.
Director Erdman displays great energy and care in shepherding these fine performances, as well as in creating the convincing and inspiring tone.
Costume designer Luke Reichle shows a lyrical flair for fantasy that is still grounded in the reality of character, as do composer Rob Milburn and sound designer Peter Stenshoel. Also credit goes to wig designer Carol Doran and lighting designer Ken Booth for very convincing effects.