I must admit I tend to gravitate towards the artsy, the cutting (sometimes even bleeding)-edge, the shocking and aweing, the highly theatrical when it comes to plays that I like to see. For those of you who read this blog regularly, you know I’ve written about many of them too over the years. But ultimately theater for me is about great storytelling, and I’ve been surprised that two of the plays I’ve liked the most this winter theater season are about the extraordinarily fraught emotional bonds between ordinary families. Call me jaded, but every time I see the words “family drama” in the description of a play (and the play isn’t entitled August: Osage County), I scoff, roll my eyes, lower my bar, and expect something straight out of Lifetime TV. But Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, a world premiere production at the American Theatre Company about the lives and loves of three generations in a suburban family played out in the restaurant they frequent over the years, and Caitlin Montaye Parrish’s A Twist of Water, in another world premiere by Route 66 Theatre Company, about the fragile relationship between a gay dad and his adopted daughter after the death in the family, are intricate, emotionally resonant, flawlessly written chamber pieces, getting the massive audience attention (and in A Twist of Water’s case, including Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s) both richly deserve.
On paper, The Big Meal seems to be as bland as white bread in a diner’s breakfast special – it is a play comprised of a series of vignettes through the inter-generational cycle of life of an ordinary American family. But that’s unfairly reductive because LeFranc’s mature, unsettling writing, and Dexter Bullard’s impressively fluid, smart, and clear-eyed direction have worked wondrously together to create a production that is so much richer and emotionally devastating than that one sentence summary can ever convey. It’s a play that’s meant to be seen and experienced, not read about. LeFranc writes beautifully, honestly, and touchingly about marriage, raising children, spousal infidelity, sibling rivalry, the complicated competitiveness between fathers and sons, and yes, death. He is never sentimental or overwrought and writes scenes where you hold your breath for an instant and go, hey, that’s what happens at my family dinners as well. But if that is only what the play is about, than it’s not any different from a well-written HBO or AMC or USA TV show that wins boatloads of Emmys. LeFranc’s vision is more ambitious – in a breathtaking way both subtle and searing, he paints the evolution and dissolution of the contemporary American family: the changing views around parenting; the impact of the Iraq war on families; the increasing debate around what traditionally constitutes a marriage, and by extension, the nuclear family; the heightened importance of being a caregiver in families wracked by illness.
And in Bullard, LeFranc has a director whose vision makes terrific material great. I love the way Bullard has staged the play, with scenes dissolving seamlessly into other scenes around the dinner table, giving the play a very cinematic sensibility. And he keeps the pacing brisk, but effortless-seeming, which is impressive given the fact that the actors play different characters in different time settings. That is also a tribute to the exceptional work of the talented cast, every single one of them turning in beautifully-rendered, thoughtfully-nuanced performances for the multiple characters they play. It is probably the best ensemble onstage this Chicago season. But I have to single out Lia Mortensen, who I unfortunately don’t see a lot of in Chicago theater (I loved her performance in the Goodman’s production of Rabbit Hole several seasons ago – a performance, in my opinion, that was much, much better than the Oscar-nominated one Nicole Kidman gave in the film version). She gives her multiple characters both distinguishable strength and achy pathos, and effectively captures the dilemmas and contradictions of contemporary wives, mothers, and daughters.
Speaking of mothers and daughters, the single best scene, imho, in A Twist of Water comes half an hour before the end of the play when the adopted daughter played with gentle conviction by Falashay Pearson meets her birth mother, a devastating Lili Ann-Brown turning in my favorite female performance of the season so far, and they come to realize that there is more to family than blood ties. I bawled my eyes out on this scene, not only because Parrish’s writing is so pointed, so haunting, and so authentic, but also because, although the scenario she writes about is so different from my life experience, she made me reflect about my own relationship with my mom when she was still alive. And that I think is what great playwriting does – it helps you illuminate and ruminate on your own life choices.
I am not as effusive about Parrish’s use of the historical development of the city of Chicago as a backdrop to the story in order to draw parallels to its resiliency and indestructibility with that of the Chicago-residing modern American family she is writing about. I would have preferred a more straightforward narrative and a more subtle approach to macro issues similar to LeFranc’s. But there’s a lot to love in her writing: the fact that she doesn’t make a big deal about the non-traditional aspect of the family relationship (a gay white father and an adopted African-American daughter); the honestly depicted relationship between the gay dad (a riveting Stef Tovar) and a much younger man (the confident and warm Alex Hugh-Brown, a definite talent to watch); the very contemporary, unpretentious language. Director and co-creator Erica Weiss directs her actors with a minimum of fuss and lets the writing wonderfully, brilliantly shine.
Please run to see both of these shows before they sell out: The Big Meal has been extended until March 27 at the American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron St., and A Twist of Water is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., until March 20. Correction: A Twist of Water has also been extended until March 26.