It's difficult to decide which moment is the most disturbing in The Loman Family Picnic, now in a masterful production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton. Is it the opening, with a haggard housewife continuously repeating her desperate mantra -- "Ilovemylife, Ilovemylife, Ilovemylife" -- as she stares at a ghost-lit television? Is it the end of the first act, as her equally panicked husband hunches alone in the light of the same black-and-white set, feverishly gobbling ice cream from a half-gallon container? Or is it the last, as their bewildered eleven-year-old son crouches in his upper bunk bed, listening in on his parents' bleak, hopeless dining-table conversation? All of these moments painfully and precisely portray a family in profound crisis. But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies and director Michael Hall take the particulars and spin them into something even more unsettling. This Picnic, for all its comedic elements -- and there are many -- evokes a deeply disturbing vision of American cultural meltdown.
Margulies's tale, a memory play drawn from his Sixties childhood, is structured like a television sit-com, but it plays like a horror story with laughs. It's set in a tenth-floor apartment of a "middle-income luxury residence" near Coney Island in Brooklyn. Vivacious, style-obsessed Doris Loman tries to emulate her late aunt Marsha, a free-living soul who committed suicide in her twenties. But try as she might, Doris lives a crushingly conventional, unhappy life with her depressed, alienated husband Herb, a lightning-fixture salesman with little light of his own. Herb feels trapped and unappreciated by his family, and his strategy of silent coping only makes things worse.
Their sons offer some hope. Thirteen-year-old Stewie is an academic achiever with the Ivy League in his sights, and eleven-year-old Mitchell is writing a musical based on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, that play about those other Lomans. Doris looks forward with pleasure to Stewie's impending bar mitzvah and spares no expense for the event.
The bar mitzvah really stirs up Herb, who burns with resentment about its high cost and with jealousy for all the attention focused on his son. He manages to keep his anger contained until after the party, when a long-delayed eruption takes place.
Even with the obvious parallels to the Miller play, the basic plot line is conventional family drama. But Margulies injects sudden, surreal intrusions, as if anticipating the weirded-out, druggy mutations that America was about to encounter in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In moments of despair, Doris is visited by the ghost of aunt Marsha. During these visitations, Marsha, a serene vision from the Forties who always arrives in a whoosh of smoke, drifts around in a sleek lavender gown and a carefully styled hairdo, a walking refutation of Doris's trendy but empty Sixties style, autumnal browns and oranges and loud print patterns.
At one point Doris and Herb soberly discuss the details of each other's death as if they have already died. At the bar mitzvah Doris, suddenly spying a cousin who died in a Nazi death camp, summons the man, who is dressed in prison stripes. "The smorgasbord's over here -- you must be starving!" she says.
Such unsettling moments turn this very normal household into a Coney Island fun house with a queasy sense of dread and misery behind the ordered normalcy, though some of Margulies's fantasy touches don't quite work. A second-act musical sequence from young Mitchell's Death of a Salesman musical comedy, Willy!, stops the show cold; and the multiple endings, while interesting, are irrelevant to the actual resolution of the play.
But the Caldwell production is superior work, spearheaded by Hall's visually compelling staging and beautifully paced, deliciously unpredictable scene work. Case in point is a seemingly innocuous Halloween sequence when the boys dress up as a skeleton and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Herb is so out of it he has to be told what day it is. The laughs continue when Doris enters from the bedroom done up as the Bride of Frankenstein. But gray-suited Herb can't contain his dismay that Doris has shredded her wedding dress to make her costume. Suddenly the laughs stop as his brooding, inarticulate anguish turns the scene from comedy toward an undercurrent of menace; Doris's Halloween costume begins to have more truth in it than it originally appeared. When Doris and the boys leave to go trick-or-treating, Mitchell abruptly returns to the doorway in skeleton costume and death's-head mask, staring at Herb for an unnerving moment, a creepy punctuation to a perfectly spooky scene.
As Doris, Lisa Bansavage is splendid, gracefully balancing desperate angst and wry comedy. The two youngsters, Michael Kushner as Stewie and Aaron Simon Gross as playwright Margulies's stand-in -- the budding dramatist Mitchell -- have a keen sense of comic timing as well as professional song-and-dance skills. Rachel Jones does a fine job with the classy, remote Marsha; and Buzz Bovshow nicely limns Herb's wretchedness and cruelty, though this oddly underwritten role could use more emotional detail. (For all the concentration on Herb, the script never really gets to the heart of his torment.)
The acting is backed with Tim Bennett's outstanding set design, a colorful but emotionally dead living space. Thomas Salzman's lighting design is equally effective, ranging from high-wattage sit-com-style lighting to decidedly sinister elements -- spidery projections and indistinct rectangles of light from the apartment windows in the distance, an effect that echoes the television screen and creates a subtle, harrowing sense of danger and isolation.
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