The Ties That Blind

Recently I saw a T-shirt imprinted with a cartoon that made me laugh out loud. It showed a young man sitting in a large but otherwise empty auditorium. The banner suspended from the ceiling read, "Convention Headquarters: Children from Completely Normal Families."

It's now acceptable, even fashionable, to drag old skeletons out of the family closet, often to publicly condemn and humiliate our loved ones on Oprah's or Geraldo's television altar. The idea that anyone could be born into a happily functional clan has taken on shades of the absurd; the Brady Bunch concept has become as anachronistic as teenage virginity. Jumping into this morass of too-true confessions -- in which people freely admit that their parents or siblings are the most irritating people they know -- is a highly unusual play from Elliott Hayes, Homeward Bound, which cleverly portrays society's view of a certain type of family life.

Although it is billed as a comedy, the humor here is darkly tinted by the play's assertion that total knowledge of your own and your family's problems inevitably produces an almost excruciating state of angst. When a brother can blithely tell a sister that he hates her, or when a mother accepts her son's homosexuality but also expresses her disdain, then where does all the feeling go? Hayes seems to be saying that while the truth may set you free, it can also leave you in an emotional vacuum from which all mystery and passion have been removed.

The New River Repertory should be applauded for bringing such a challenging work down from Canada and for producing it so successfully. But a warning: This play will not appeal to everyone. During the course of two acts Hayes deftly reveals how members of upper-middle-class families carve up each other with razor-sharp scalpels rather than meat cleavers. Some viewers may laugh, but others will squirm uncomfortably in their seats.

The Ontario Independent called Hayes's work "brilliant and darkly hilarious," a view I share. The director at the New River Repertory, Jim Cordes, describes the play as "Neil Simon and Harold Pinter collaborating on a farce," which is also succinctly accurate, for Homeward Bound is at its funniest and its dreariest in those moments when it reminds you -- sometimes acutely -- of the last Thanksgiving dinner or similar gathering you attended with your own kin.

While the four principal characters A mother Bonnie, father Glen, son Nick, and daughter Norris A continually carp at each other, they do so in impeccable English and with excellent manners. Bonnie and Glen have called their children home to serve them champagne, and to bluntly inform them that Glen, although in remission from cancer, has chosen to die. However, he hasn't decided whether he should kill himself or hire someone to do it. As the play opens, Bonnie is discussing the social repercussions of murder versus suicide, and at the same time carefully planning the vacation she intends to take after her husband's demise. Later she eagerly asks her children whether they think Tibet or Maui would be more suitable for a new widow.

Son Nick, a gay journalist, is mildly rattled at the news, but is far more annoyed by his sister's whiny children and her constant insults. Brother and sister clearly loathe each other for all those nonspecific reasons that fuel sibling rivalry. Glen doesn't seem to care much for his daughter, either, and barely tolerates his son. Bonnie absolutely refuses to play grieving wife and devoted mother, frankly (but calmly, of course) admitting that she's not sure when her "emotional detachment" began, when she ceased to care about anything and anyone.

Add Norris's jealous husband Kevin (a simple-minded drunk) and Nick's "friend" Guy (a recovering alcoholic filled with phony good cheer) and you have a dysfunctional but not atypical group of people who are fundamentally selfish but at a loss to understand why they feel so lousy and alone.

Act one could benefit from more action and humor, but there's no denying that Hayes, in masterful dialogue, captures the understated agony of familial intimacy far better than most modern playwrights. When Guy refers to Nick as his lover, mother Bonnie snipes, "That's a terrible word. It's too explicit. It sounds like a verb." Act two, on the other hand, adds more offbeat, absurdist laugh lines. Glen, for example, complains that "my death becomes more insignificant every time someone opens their mouth." The finale also features an ingenious and thoroughly unexpected twist of the plot, a rarity these days.

Just as this is not an easy play to describe, it's a devil to perform well. But the New River Repertory has met the challenge with excellent staging and acting. Director Cordes perfectly catches the rhythm of the piece, a major key to the production's success. Communication among family members is always quick and cutting, but terribly civilized, which sustains the comic tone. With the wrong timing the humor would be lost and the play's wit undermined in the process.

Craig Hartley is perfect as Glen. He rarely moves from his armchair or shows much emotion other than mild frustration, but still creates a character that embodies most aloof but well-meaning fathers. As Nick, Joseph Pazillo finds the humor in his character's snobbery, and makes an obnoxious role enjoyable to watch. Janis Avillion as Norris similarly adds original touches to the spoiled-princess persona, and Sheila Allen as Bonnie, the intellectual and good-humored mother who refuses to care any more, is touching, funny, and always honest. In fact, it is this essential honesty that most actors find so difficult to convey in dark comedies, even though the irony inherent in this style stems from the fact that the absurdity of their lines and situations is never acknowledged by them or pushed for laughs.

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