Saturday, May 07, 2011

Who Killed Kenny? GroundWorks Theatre’s Fall to Earth Goes for the Maternal Jugular Just in Time for Mother’s Day

[Since my usual outlet for my theater reviews, Nashville Scene, was unable to accommodate my coverage for this week, I’ve posted this review to my wider-purpose blog.--M.B.]

So, which parent screwed YOU up the most? Sometimes that’s a pretty tough call. But in Joel Drake Johnson’s The Fall to Earth, which opened this past Friday at Groundworks Theatre, there’s little doubt that mommie dearest is the culprit.

Johnson’s play impressed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company seven years ago, and the GroundWorks producing/directing team of Robert and Sean O’Connell were there to see it. Now they’ve mounted the regional premiere, and no matter how jaggedly intravenous the discomfort can get in this baleful ode to family dysfunction, it’s compelling stuff every step of the way, in two tight acts that bring all the cringing sadness home comfortably--well, sort of--under two hours.

This economy-sized punch to the familial jaw begins when mother Fay (Wesley Paine) and daughter Rachel (Megan Murphy Chambers) enter a hotel room in Eureka, Oregon, where they’ve come to address the unpleasant business surrounding the recent death of son/brother Kenny. This means meeting with the local authorities, identifying the body and making arrangements for shipping the remains to the Midwest for burial.

We don’t ever find out what the heck Kenny was doing in Oregon, though we glean that the family is probably from Illinois, and we learn for sure that Rachel--divorced and the mother of a young son--lives in Chicago. But Kenny, we presume, was a loser--one of those poor unattended souls who got lost in life’s shuffle, bullied and unsure of everything about himself.

The drama at hand, however, is what is happening between mother and daughter. In Act 1, Rachel seems to be the stronger of the two, throwing her hands in the air in a “What are we gonna do with you?” frustration that seems very typical of daughters vis a vis their very middle-aged moms. Then the duo must confront the “Kenny problem” more directly, exacerbated when a supportive policewoman (Heather Webber) attempts to explain certain aspects of Kenny’s habits and his grungy demise.

Which bring us to an Act 2 where the emotional gloves come off, and Fay and Rachel mix it up accusatorily, and more and more is revealed about a family life that almost--but not quite--makes the situation in Ordinary People look like a simple misunderstanding.

Yes, the darkness lives with mom, and Paine’s performance has to be one of the most psychically challenging and physically demanding of her productive Nashville career. When she slaps Chambers around in their climactic catfight, there is little doubt how frighteningly dominant parenting patterns can be--not to mention how Pavlovianly compliant even grown children may react in response. Dramatically, Chambers is Paine’s match, but it’s a bitter seesaw she rides with good ol’ mom in the ascent.

Of course, there’s nothing psychologically healthy about all this, and one is drawn to wonder about playwright Johnson’s inspiration for the whole rigmarole. The good news is it’s engrossing theater. Sean O’Connell’s direction ensures that a sense of reality pervades the action, and the strong performances insistently do their truthful duty.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all!

What: The Fall to Earth
Who: GroundWorks Theatre
Where: Darkhorse Theatre, 4610 Charlotte Ave., Nashville 37209
When: Through May 14, 2011
Phone: 615-262-5485

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