Killers and Other Family” comes from a cycle of plays in which Lucy Thurber bashes smart girls who turn their backs on their low-class backgrounds. This one gives it to a doctoral student who thought she’d escaped her hardscrabble roots — until her brother and his best friend land on her doorstep, bringing with them the violence, the ignorance and the cruelty of the boonies. But by withholding all signs of humanity from these brutes, Thurber makes us wonder why someone doesn’t just call the cops on them. That said, Caitriona McLaughlin helms a well-cast ensemble through a muscular production for Rattlestick.
Like some farm-team Steppenwolf, Rattlestick goes for a hard-edged, physically out-there performance style, and this play provides the company with choice material for that down-and-dirty approach. There’s barely time to size up the situation when Lizzie (Samantha Soule, in a punishing role) opens the door of her Manhattan apartment to brother Jeff (Dashiell Eaves) and his buddy Danny (Shane McRae) before Lizzie and Danny are going at it on the floor.
Baffling though it may be, in terms of character motivation, it’s a well-staged scene — almost as well staged as the considerably more violent scene late in the play when Danny attempts to rape Claire (Aya Cash), Lizzie’s roommate and lover. While fight director David Anzuelo surely deserves a fist tap for the logistics, the brutal assault is more than good staging. It’s about character and conflict writ large.
The relationships between Lizzie and Danny, Lizzie and Jeff, and Lizzie and the life she thought she left behind are complex, but Thurber defines them almost exclusively through physical gesture. To express his anger and envy of Lizzie’s lifestyle, Danny paws like an animal at her precious possessions, including poor Claire. Jeff, who feels Lizzie’s rejection even more keenly, inarticulately tries to protect his sister by taking her thesis out of Danny’s rough hands.
There’s a good bit of talk in this play — and with the exception of Claire’s wishy-washy dialogue, the sound of it is raw and authentic. But little of significance gets said. It’s left to the physical signifiers to carry the story. So, while Lizzie can’t speak of her ambivalent feelings about leaving what sounds like a tough, possibly abusive life in the sticks, she can drain a bottle of liquor and light up a lot of cigarettes.
Thurber doesn’t find her own tongue until very late in the play, when Jeff finally hits on a way to get Danny out of the apartment before he wrecks the place or gets arrested.
“It’s only been 24 hours but I miss the country bad, don’t you?” he asks his friend, in a soft voice. “Woods and fresh air. Real quiet. Late at night. Can’t see no lights. Time don’t go nowhere. Everything’s just the same as it’s always been. I love that. Don’t you, Danny? We’re lucky, right? We’re lucky we get to go back.” It’s a gorgeous piece of writing, and Thurber does herself a disservice by withholding it for so long.