Families are screwed up in all kinds of little ways — and in some big ways too. But it takes a skilled playwright to gradually reveal how family members interact with each other without resorting to literal descriptions of various personality defects.
Joel Drake Johnson is just such a writer and his two-hour excursion — The Fall to Earth — opens a window into the lives of Fay, her grown daughter Rachel and her son Kenny. Now playing at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland, the production, directed by Christopher Johnston, features three solid performances that fall short of brilliant. And in a play this delicate, that takes a bit of the edge off the playwright's finely wrought structure.
Fay and Rachel arrive at their room in a semi-classy motel and proceed to share mother-daughter small talk that is fully dominated by mom Fay. The conversation is about things both trivial (was Fay overdressed for her plane flight in business class?) and more philosophical (if one person believes in heaven and one doesn't, does that mean they'll never see each other after death?).
Clearly, they are trying to avoid talking about the purpose of their trip. Meanwhile, it becomes obvious that they are not all that close back at their respective homes. Indeed, when Fay learns that Rachel has a cell phone with free long distance, her volatile reaction ("You mean you could have called me anytime??") tips off what kind of person we're dealing with here.
As Fay, Kate Duffield is excellent at creating a middle-age suburban mother that anyone can recognize. Dressed in an aqua outfit from J.C. Penney and given to rhapsodic effusions over simple things, she is the very embodiment of cute and maternal.
But when Fay slips into moments of anger or even momentary delusion, Duffield seems less at ease, uncertain how far to push this darker side of her role. This poses a challenge for talented Teresa McDonough, who has to play Rachel in an almost completely reactive mode to Fay. Lying on the bed, still a shadow, she listens to her mom rattle on, caught somewhere between affection and revulsion.
Things come to a head when Fay and Rachel go to the police station, and the cause of Kenny's death is revealed. That's when they meet police officer Terry, a young woman who empathizes with the women's plight and goes out of her way to be solicitous, to her eventual chagrin. Sarah Kunchik's Terry is a complex bag of neuroses herself, but Terry disappears before we can figure out exactly who she is.
Even though there are depths to this script that go unplumbed in this production, there is still plenty here to fascinate, especially if you appreciate a slyly measured revelation of ultimate truths.