How refreshing — a dysfunctional family drama in which you actually give a damn who gets written out of the will. In “Don’t Go Gentle,” Stephen Belber trots out familiar character cliches: the wastrel son, the drudge of a daughter, the tyrannical father responsible for stunting his children’s emotional lives. But without underestimating the contribution of Michael Cristofer’s forceful perf, this dying dragon, a retired criminal court justice from upstate New York, proves a complex character who comes to regret his severe conservatism and tries to win moral redemption in a highly unorthodox way.
With notable recent exceptions like Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” and Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” characters’ political views rarely figure in a significant way in contemporary family dramas. So it looks promising when Lawrence Driver (Cristofer), a widowed and retired judge with little to look forward to but his own death, allows his daughter to pressure him into doing pro bono work for low-income clients screwed by the legal system.
Judge Driver’s first client is Tanya Jenkins (Angela Lewis, in an effectively low-keyed perf), a single black mother who was incompetently represented (and too harshly punished) on a marijuana charge. Having lost both her apartment and her job as a nurse tech, Tanya is living with her sister, while her 16-year-old son, Rasheed (Maxx Brawer, entirely comfortable inhabiting this grown-up child), must commute clear across town to attend high school. Both Tanya and Rasheed are justifiably wary of the condescending Lawrence, a staunch conservative notorious for the stiff sentences he passed down from the bench.
“I had an exceptional work ethic” is Lawrence’s rationale for the inflexible moral code that earned him his fearsome reputation and kept him from rising to a higher bench. We get a full blast of that rigid ethic when the judge’s ne’er-do-well son, Ben (David Wilson Barnes, making the best of an unredeemable character), returns from India to take over caretaking duties from his worn-out sister Amelia (her generous intelligence acknowledged by the ever-reliable Jennifer Mudge). Ben, a reformed drunk and heroin addict, barely has his foot in the door before father and son pick up their ritual battles from his last visit.
“I’m just an old man with a kind and gentle heart,” Lawrence insists, in one of those dizzying reversals that make the character so unpredictable and Cristofer’s carefully calibrated perf almost scary to watch.
Taking up Tanya’s case does, indeed, awaken the judge’s sympathy for people so far down on the social and economic ladder that the law doesn’t protect them. It also stirs his conscience about his own complicity in this systemic injustice.
Lawrence’s heightened perception about the inequalities of the legal system doesn’t extend, however, to the rigid laws he laid down for his own family. Instead of atoning for being a hanging judge by lifting the stiff judgments he passed on his own children, he turns Tanya and Rasheed into his surrogate family and looks to them for redemption.
Although the point is cleverly camouflaged by the smart performances executed under Lucie Tiberghien’s shrewd direction, Lawrence is really the only character complex enough to feel ambivalent about the moral issues. In the scribe’s simplistic treatment of the other characters, Ben is completely loathsome, Amelia is a perfect saint, Tanya is a selfless caregiver, and Rasheed is an adorable kid. This not only limits the integrity of these characters, but more critically, also diminishes Lawrence’s heroic struggles with his devil of a conscience.