Romantic relationships are fraught excursions, often resembling the old Buster Keaton silent movies. Those are the flicks where he walks from one airborne steel beam to another at a construction site, the next beam swinging into position just as his foot lands on it.
Every romance needs a lot of good fortune as the two amorous participants try to surmount their own family demons and construct a viable relationship. And that is the magical journey that is so precisely (yet obliquely) depicted in Kin by Bathsheba Doran, now at Dobama Theatre.
Doran eschews most of the standard romantic claptrap—hell, she doesn't even let her primary duo even meet in person for most of the seven years this play covers. Instead, Doran explores in bits and pieces the baggage that Sean, from Ireland, and Anna, from the U.S., bring to their Internet-ignited bonding. Utilizing 20 short scenes that jump across time and geography, Doran focuses on the family and friends of the two protagonists in a deft reversal of the usual boy-meets-girl storyline.
Indeed, a clever feint at the start makes you think this play might be about Anna's friend Helena, just the sort of ditzy, drama-queen character that writers love to build a plot around. And as Helena, Leighann Delorenzo is adorably off-center as she hectors Anna about lowering her rigid criteria, when it comes to dating, thus opening herself up to more possibilities.
Anna does so and soon encounters Sean online, as we find out from Sean's agoraphobic mother Linda, who has been holed up in her house in Ireland ever since a tragic event blew a hole in her life. She's often comforted by her brother Max (an amusing Bob Keefe) who enjoys sharing some whiskey with his sis and musing on the problem with kids these days. As Linda says of her children, "I kept (their) expectations low...there's something to be said for providing an upward trajectory." Meanwhile Sean, a personal fitness trainer, is trying to shake off the effects of his last relationship with alcoholic Rachel (Rachel Lee Kolis).
Stateside, Anna is pursuing her career as an adjunct professor with a large academic tome she has written titled "Keats's Punctuation" (it's not ironic, that's what it's about). Beyond that hard-to-comprehend scholarly pursuit, Anna is dealing with her distant dad Adam (Pete Ferry in a nicely modulated turn) and the difficult details surrounding her mother's death. While jousting with his daughter, Adam finds some relief by visiting his sick friend Kay (Jeanne Task). Rounding out all the characters is David Burgher, double-cast as Anna's pompous supervising professor Simon, and a hunter Helena meets in the woods of North Carolina.
Anna and Sean are brought to life by Elana Kepner and Geoff Knox, bouncing off their respective "support systems" with humorous and sometimes poignant believability. And they don't have to worry about developing chemistry between each other, since they're apart for most of the time. Happily, the whole enterprise is anchored, in a splendid way, by Lenne Snively, whose Linda rarely ventures beyond her own doorstep. Snively's multi-hued performance gives this far-ranging script a beating heart, especially as she finds her way from depression to a kind of hope.
There are a lot of moving parts to this piece, but Doran weaves them together skillfully. And the production, under the sure-handed direction of Shannon Sindelar, is both beautiful to look at and continually engaging. It is played out in front of a tight set that is essentially a huge shelf unit packed with all-white boxes, baskets, suitcases, drawers and trunks. Perhaps symbolic of all the baggage these characters are hauling around, the monochromatic set is enhanced with precisely focused projection effects that are as lush and intriguing, at times, as the script itself.
That set and lighting/projection design — by Tiffany Scribner, Marcus Dana and Mike Tutaj — is certainly compelling. But it feels a bit constricted at the end, when Anna and Sean are finally together "at the edge of the world." That is a small cavil about a show that explores the intricacies of family and relationships from a fresh and often startling angle.
Kin: Through May 25 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396,dobama.org.