The Happy Medium Theatre Company bundles two one-act plays together for a theatrical experience the explores a single compelling theme: family.
In the current cultural and political climate, even something as elemental and universal as family has become controversial, with some elements regarding family in strict, narrow terms and refusing to recognize anything that falls outside of those boundaries. For others, however, ties of love and loyalty are the only thing that matter--and the only thing that keeps them going.
Such is the case for the characters in both of the one-act plays that The Happy Medium Theatre Company has bundled together under the omnibus title Family (de)Values, continuing through Aug. 8 at The Factory Theater in Boston.
The two plays feature two casts, but a single director, Mikey DiLoreto, who demonstrates his ability and his range by giving us two very different experiences in look and tone. The first play, "Wasp" (written by Steve Martin), focuses on a "traditional" family that's treading water. The play is set in the 1950s, and is self-conscious about it in a broadly satirical way. (Noting that he has $17,000 in the bank, the father, played by Marc Harpin, boasts to his son, played by Preston Graveline, that, "In today's currency, that's like being a millionaire!") Dad is a Dad all the way: he dresses and acts like a stereotype from the TV comedies of the time, from his cut-and-dried moralism (if the son wants a bicycle, he can earn it--by building a seven-story edifice on Dad's vacant lot) to his manner of relating to his wife and children (which is to say, barely at all).
Mom (Audrey Lynn Sylvia) is also a stereotype, at least on the surface. But by delving into her head--and the eavesdropping on her conversation with the chorus of Voices that dwell there--Martin reveals an ink-black well of misery boring through Mom's soul.
Sis (Rachel Kurnos) is far from the ideal daughter. She's had sex--once--and now she's terrified that she might on her way to a not-quite-virgin birth. Her thoughts are in a confused whirl of sexual and pious cross-currents, to the absurd (and alarming) extent that she envisions giving birth to Jesus--and then, once he's grown up, marrying him, at which point the two of them would settle into domestic tranquility ("He would run the Mini-Mart," she muses to herself).
Dad, too, is adrift in his own void of terror and dissatisfaction. His soliloquy is late in coming, but when it arrives it's startling in its stark, brute despair. This is a family that wears the polish and glamor of having met the expectations of the age, but there's little true substance holding it all together--and what substance there is, we discover in a loopy twist, is nothing at all like the "typical American family."
The second play, "Refuge" (written by Jessica Goldberg), looks at family from the other side. There's no gloss or glamor at all in Amy's (Krista D'Agostino) life: She's the sole caregiver and guardian for an ailing brother, Nat (Terry Torres) and little sister, Becca (Erika Geller). Amy's been in this situation ever since her parents abandoned her and her siblings, lighting out for Florida, never to return. The desperate, never-ending need of her brother and sister is the only thing that keeps Amy moving through her days, despite the deep shell-shock of abandonment.
When Amy meets a young man named Sam (Nick Miller) at a bar and takes him home, she inadvertently sets out on a rough road toward something new. Sam falls in love with her and, not put off by Terry's bitter verbal traps or Becca's druggy, bad-girl acting out, he offers to become part of the family. Nat views Sam with suspicion, wary of "freeloaders," and Becca eyes him as a prospective amusement for herself; Amy is so overwhelmed by her own unanswered needs that she barely allows herself to hope in Sam's sincerity. Step by step, the fractured little family moves toward a new wholeness.
Both casts do superb work, but it's "Refuge" that makes a deeper impression--both because of the material and also due to the performances, which are uniformly excellent and sometimes a little scary.
Wasp relies on minimal props--including "human props," such as an actor who stands to the side and plays the part of the telephone: "Ring! Ring!" (Harpin brings a new meaning to the phrase "I'll take it in the living room" when he grabs the actor's write and drags her to another part of the set.) For "Refuge," however, there are props galore: Unlike the wealthy family with its luxury items (which Steve Martine defines as "Things you have that annoy others that you have them"), who are presented with hardly any props at all, the family in "Refuge," which is barely squeaking by, are outfitted with all the trimmings--a comment, perhaps, on the significance that everyday essentials acquire to those who can barely afford them.
Come to think of it, that's a good metaphor, too, for family itself: As some families struggle to earn, and keep, social and legal recognition, others--for whom such recognition is an unquestioned entitlement more than a right or a privilege--are less mindful and, it sometimes seems, less appreciative. Hence, the multiple marriages of anti-marriage equality big-shots like Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich, while same-sex families find themselves shut out of legal parity in 30 states. Sometimes, these plays remind us, life itself seems to play out in the "theater of the absurd."
Family (de)Values continues through August 7 at The Factory Theater, located at 791 Tremont Street in Boston.
Tickets cost $16, general admission. Aug. 5 will be a "pay what you can" admission, with a minimum of $5. Tickets available at the door--cash only--or online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/116701
Performance Schedule: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday matinee at 4:00 p.m.