The Center Theatre Group has launched its second season of new works presentations at Actor’s Gang Theatre in Hollywood with a morose coming-of-age saga of a father and son struggling to overcome their individual demons in order to find a life together. Canadian born playwright Sunil Kuruvilla certainly establishes his premise of emotional and social displacement but fails to develop the work to any significant conclusion. The production is further complicated by an uneven ensemble and the rigidly sparse staging of Chay Yew that excessively underscores the playwright’s arid agenda without instilling any human vitality among the characters to serve as much needed balance and subtext.
Segueing seamlessly on Victoria Petrovich’s minimal, open landscape setting, the action moves back and forth between the Canadian home of 12-year-old Tommy (Ravi Kapoor) and his Father (Subush Kundanmal) in the winter of 1975 and flashbacks to their visit six months earlier to Father’s native village in India. The Canadian scenes are emotionally underdeveloped and stilted to the point of being inert as stability-starved Tommy flees his psychologically repressed father in order to find a true home for himself. His wanderings involve an encounter with a socially callow Mennonite farmer (Christopher S. Wells) who has never ventured beyond his own farm and near-catatonic Mr. Harris (also Wells), whose own son has become one of those missing children pictured on milk cartons.
The Indian sequences are much more developed and more fully inhabited. Though the reason for his prodigal return is never explained, Father spends his time wallowing in haunted memories of the drowning death of his wife 10 years earlier.
For his part, Tommy is much more involved in the prevailing angst that permeates the home of his sad-sack Uncle (Shelly Desai) and desperately unhappy Auntie (Meera Simhan). Adding to the household dissatisfaction is the unrequited longing the family Servant Girl (Purva Pedi) feels for her ex-husband Fish Seller (Ossie Mair), who provides the family with fish but won’t allow himself to reunite with his former wife.
Tommy finds himself drawn to his slightly older cousin Tina (Lina Patel), whose paralyzed legs render her a completely homebound invalid. The boy’s emerging puberty unites with her desire to see more of the world around her. Soon Tommy is assisting her on nocturnal excursions into the neighboring town, where Tina realizes just how much of life in which she will never adequately be able to participate.
Kuruvilla layers all these individual catharses with intriguing facility but leaves their conclusions to a decidedly unsatisfactory play-ending “summing up” narration. Father’s eventual letting go of his wife’s memory and reconciliation with his son is arbitrary and devoid of emotional impact. Part of the problem lies with the casting of the thoroughly adult Bedi in the part of Tommy. The inappropriateness of the age difference is glaringly pointed out by the picture of an actual pre-teen lad on the cover of the program.
The only performance to truly transcend the limitations of the production is Patel’s luminous portrayal of Tina. There is an uncontainable glow that emanates from her as Tina sees her imprisoned femininity and beauty reflected in Tommy’s eyes.