Some plays are so inherently unpleasant to watch that you wonder how a nonprofit can possibly sell them to a subscription audience. “The Children of Vonderly” is one of those plays. Lloyd Suh pulls out all the sensitivity stops in his domestic drama about the chaos in a multiethnic family of handicapped adults when their adoptive father dies and their adoptive mother has a breakdown. But while emotions run high in this volatile household, they have no true focus, with characters staggering from crisis to crisis screaming at one another in dumb pain — pain the audience comes to share.
Far and away the best thing about May-Yi artistic director Ralph B. Pena’s production is the authenticity the tight ensemble cast brings to its depiction of young adults growing up with a variety of severe mental and physical handicaps, suggesting thorough research by scribe, helmer and thesps.
Furthermore, they do it while stranded on Sarah Lambert’s barren set, a few sticks of furniture and some sliding screens that provide no sense of the warm old house they were nurtured in.
Confined to a wheelchair as Jerry Vonderly, William Jackson Harper is especially convincing as a young man, paralyzed from the waist down, whose vitality resides completely in his fertile — if occasionally feverish — brain. Neither do Jackie Chung or Shawn Randall fall into the mannered stage behavior of people portraying those who are developmentally disabled. Even Benjamin, the ill-tempered dwarf played by Stephen Jutras, exhibits what seem like real-life bad manners.
Whatever lessons or impressions are ultimately to be drawn from this play, the question posed, and far less successfully addressed, is how these six adoptive siblings will adapt to the death of the father who raised them as a loving and God-fearing “normal” Jewish family.
As Norma Vonderly, the matriarch of this difficult brood, the fine actress Lynn Cohen manages to look genteelly elegant, even when being carted off to the loony bin. Cohen’s Norma may convey the goodness and serenity of a living saint, but when the poor thing snaps, she becomes every bit as unpredictable as her brood, lashing out in irrational fits of grief and rage that, coming from such a rock of a character, are genuinely frightening.
The problem with the play is that it provides no point of sanity against which all the domestic distress and hysteria might be measured. Are Norma’s frantic financial worries genuine, or is she just in a panic? Is Benjamin, who serves as the family accountant, really so incompetent that he hasn’t done some estate planning? And why would these well-loved children treat their mother so shabbily in her hour of grief?
But there’s simply no time to ponder a logical thought in this jumpy play, which drops every practical matter it raises in order to pursue messier emotional issues. Jerry’s mute love for Georgia (Maureen Sebastian) would count as one of these issues, as would his rage at Chuck (Paco Tolson), the behavioral therapist who takes over running the household while Norma is hospitalized.
While these internal conflicts are broadly, even savagely acted out in self-punishing behavior, they are rarely articulated in coherent word or deed.
“We talked,” Jerry says of an oblique exchange with Norma when she returns home from the hospital. Well, maybe that’s what the playwright would call it. Others might compare it to exchanging waves with a bus driver who slows down but doesn’t quite stop to pick you up.