Alexander Thomas’ autobiographical one-man show is many things: a memory play about a fractured family, a tribute to a dead brother, an apologia for a brutal father, a search for identity and a cry of pain. As written and performed by the playwright, this intensely personal show is also a total bore for anyone outside the Thomas family.
As a textbook example of what the late New Yorker critic Edith Oliver was wont to call “the my-life-so-far play,” Thomas’ recounting of his personal history is based on the assumption that the family dynamic that made him the man he is today holds some intrinsic interest for strangers.
OK, OK, so it worked for O’Neill. But the series of monologues in which the four Thomas brothers and their father reveal themselves, while full of trauma, are resolutely devoid of drama. And although all five men account for themselves in language that is roughly poetic and bluntly self-defining, the substance of each speech is confined to its moment.
Throat raw, eyes blazing, Daddy Thomas identifies himself with his first inarticulate roar. His sons — the elder two mean and nasty and in prison where they belong; the younger ones educated, creative, and screwed up — show themselves in bits and pieces. As characters, each of these wounded men holds his piece of the stage, sharply delineated by the precision movements of Lenora Pace’s direction, and clarified by the color-drenched self-portraits of Troy Hourie’s production design and finger-stabbing lighting of Ben Stanton. But their vividness doesn’t save these characters because Thomas has made the misstep of highlighting the two least interesting: Cleve, the bookish brother who dies of AIDS, and Alex, the would-be actor-writer who is the playwright’s persona.
If there is a propelling force in this self-regarding psychodrama, it is the powerful presence of Daddy, a violent, inarticulate drunk whose life was destroyed when, as a 14-year-old country boy, he drew a life sentence in an Alabama prison. All the defining moments in this piece are Daddy’s: the time he went fishing in the bayou with his father; the time he helped three thieves to rob a store; the time he became the “dog boy” who trained the prison bloodhounds; the time he broke out of prison with those same hounds at his back; the time he threw a pitchfork at Alex.
As an actor, Thomas really shows his mettle as Daddy, stumbling around the stage like a wounded bull, stamping out his rage, pain and confusion at the shambles of his life, bellowing out his ferocious love for the sons for whom he has only one clear message: “Don’t be like me!” If Thomas had wanted to prove himself a playwright, he might have better written a fully realized play from the horrific — and extraordinarily dramatic — events of this man’s blasted life.