The Civilians are a mighty smart company, and “You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce” is indicative of the clever things they do. This unconventional show only runs an hour and is performed on a bare stage by four members of the collective who sit in chairs and talk directly to the audience. Speaking in character as their own parents, the thesps deliver verbatim testimony excavated from personal interviews — highly sensitive stuff that should explain a lot about the boomer generation to their children. Despite the minimal stagecraft, this is riveting confessional theater.
Helmer Anne Kauffman and her co-authors in this collective endeavor have taken care to give their plotless piece a bit of structure. Specifically, the parental recollections are delivered chronologically on thematic issues (projected graphically behind their backs) like: “How they met,” “How they decided to get married,” and “How they broke up.”
Caitlin Miller speaks for her mother, Mary Anne, and Jennifer R. Morris for her mother, Beverly. Rather bravely of him, Robbie Collier Sublett assumes the role of his mother, Janet (his father would have no part of this project), and Matthew Maher pulls off the neat feat of representing both of his divorced parents, John and Frinde.
The most surprising thing about these confessions is their candor. More than one parent cops to a secret affair. One wife reveals that her husband was a criminal. And in another remarkably frank moment, the irrepressible Beverly admits to her daughter that, “It’s all about me,” and allows as how her children had to fend for themselves.
These revelations are both funny and sad, and it’s impossible not to wonder how these grown-up children are taking the news. As one mother succinctly puts it: “I hope this doesn’t send you to the psychiatrist.”
The reactions of the children to their parents’ frank and sometimes shocking disclosures are the unwritten part of the play that we don’t get to see — and can only imagine. It does seem, though, as if the young interlocutors got more than they bargained for.
Of rather more interest to a general audience is the group portrait of a generation that emerges from these individual case sketches. The parents may differ from one another in significant ways, from religion to educational background. But at heart, they are all baby boomers who came of age during the 1960s, and in an important way, that shared history still defines them.
“You have to understand that era,” Frinde impresses on her son, Matthew. They found sexual freedom, did some drugs, and traveled abroad during the 60s, to be sure, but they were also politically engaged. They refer to themselves as “socialists,” “revolutionaries,” and “the new generation.” They worked for Bobby Kennedy, picketed in support of Cesar Chavez, signed petitions for the Berrigan Brothers — and if their kids don’t know what that was all about, they should learn.
“You have to understand,” one mother says, “we thought we could transform American society.”
When Miller, Sublett, Morris, and Maher signed up for this project, they probably hoped for insights into their parents’ marriages, as well as their divorces. Well, they got that — and a lot more besides.