How Cissy Grew

Susan Johnston examines the jagged shards of a dysfunctional family's sorrowful history, offering compelling if arbitrary glimpses into the aftermath of a horrific event in "How Cissy Grew."

'How Cissy Grew'

Susan Johnston examines the jagged shards of a dysfunctional family’s sorrowful history, offering compelling if arbitrary glimpses into the aftermath of a horrific event in “How Cissy Grew.” Featuring a finely tuned four-person ensemble, play looks at the frailty of human interactions that have been scarred beyond the possibility of empathy or forgiveness. Helmer Casey Stangl ably choreographs the 20-year flow of memory bits thrust forward in nonlinear disarray as each family member struggles to find redemption and salvation.

Covering 1988 to the present, this one-act legiter offers a free-form kaleidoscope of moments in the lives of West Virginia blue-collar laborer Butch (James Denton), his common-law mate Darla (Erin J. O’Brien) and their relentlessly misanthropic daughter Cissy (Liz Vital).

Cissy’s brief abduction as an infant drives an ever-deepening wedge into Butch and Darla’s relationship, crippling their lives as well as their daughter’s. Johnston’s insistence that this couple must wallow in their dysfunction in order to survive is not entirely believable, but is certainly made more viable by the perfs.

“Desperate Housewives” regular Denton offers an impressive, detailed outing as underachieving Butch, a former football star who cannot overcome the crushing guilt he feels, despite his attempts to anesthetize himself with drugs and alcohol. Denton’s Butch effectively segues into a self-righteous born-again disciplinarian who still fails to win Darla’s trust or Cissy’s love.

O’Brien’s Darla, a formerly lighthearted, foul-mouthed barmaid, becomes an open wound overflowing with anguish following her daughter’s abduction. O’Brien gives veracity to Darla’s inability move on once Cissy has been safely returned. Her perf is particularly noteworthy as Darla attempts to deal with Butch’s rejection and her maturing daughter’s lack of respect.

The highlight of the production is Vital’s near-sociopathic Cissy, an amalgam of seething contempt and cold-blooded distain for her life and everyone around her. Yet Vital imbues Cissy with a compelling sensuality and keen awareness of her effect on others, as if she is waiting for someone to break through her facade and convince her that life is worth living.

Stewart W. Calhoun offers the closest thing to comic relief, competently wending his way through all the confused and defeated boys and men and in Cissy’s life.

“How Cissy Grew” is complemented by the all-purpose modular sets of Laura Fine Hawkes, the mood-enhancing lighting of Trevor Stirlin Burk and the evocative sounds of C. Andrew Mayer.

How Cissy Grew

El Portal Forum Theater; 99 seats; $40 top

  • Production: A D-I-Y Project, in association with SeaGlass Theater, presentation of a play in one act by Susan Johnston. Directed by Casey Stangl.
  • Crew: Sets, Laura Fine Hawkes; costumes, Jennifer May Nickel; lighting, Trevor Stirlin Burk; sound, C. Andrew Mayer; music, Lauren Adams; production stage manager, Kimberly Van Luin. Opened, reviewed, Oct. 18, 2008. Runs through Nov. 23. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Butch - James Denton Darla - Erin J. O'Brien Cissy - Liz Vital The Guy - Stewart W. Calhoun
  • Music By: