Death and the Dysfunctional American Family

04/10/2015 03:24 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The death of a parent can have a profound effect on a normal family. But when a parent in a wildly dysfunctional family kicks the bucket, the shit hits the fan with a rather remarkable vehemence.

  • In families where one or more siblings have been keeping secrets from their relations, someone is bound to let the cat out of the bag.
  • In families where both parents have spent years at each other's throats, there's bound to be some friction up until the very last moment.
  • In families where bitter resentments have festered for years, audiences should expect wounded egos to erupt in impressive displays of self-pity and vituperative recriminations.

From the cruel and untimely murder of Banquo ("Lesser than Macbeth, and greater" -- "Not so happy, yet much happier" -- "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none") in The Tragedy of Macbeth to the sadness surrounding Willy Loman's passing in Death of a Salesman ("Attention must be paid"), a parent's death takes an especially strange toll on those left behind.

Two recent productions by small theatre companies in Berkeley focused on fictional American families with more than enough misery to go around. While both playwrights provoked nervous (and sometimes explosive) laughter from the audience, each and every one of the survivors was a case study in emotionally damaged goods. Not surprisingly, in each play one of the decedent's daughters was a victim of chronic episodes of domestic violence.

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Many people live in abject fear of death. Some, however, welcome it as a relief from life's insults. Ben Lyons (Will Marchetti) definitely falls into the later category. As he lies in a hospital bed dying of metastatic cancer, he's forced to listen to his wife, Rita (Ellen Ratner), as she thumbs through magazines looking for inspirational ideas which can help her redecorate the living room as soon as Ben croaks. "I look at that sofa," complains Rita. "I know it was cream when we bought it but it's just a washed-out color of dashed hopes. The chairs are the shade of disgust and the carpet is matted down with resignation."


Rita (Ellen Ratner) and her husband, Ben (Will Marchetti)
in a scene from The Lyons (Photo by: David Allen)

The audience quickly grasps that this is a marriage whose partners have never really listened to each other or shown much concern for one another's needs. A bluntly insensitive yet icily manipulative matriarch whose words are tinged with sarcasm, Rita doesn't filter any thoughts except for her disgust at Ben's increasing use of profanity in every sentence.

Rita's been waiting for years to be free of her husband's demands. When, in an effort to at least get a token amount of sympathy from his wife, Ben reminds her that he's dying, Rita responds "Yes, I know, but try to be positive!" She's also quick to blame her dying husband for all of their children's problems.

Ben and Rita's two adult children are a psychologist's nightmare. Lisa (Jessica Bates) is the mother of twins who has been trying to stay sober through membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. Angered by her mother's nagging insinuation that her son Jeremy might be mentally handicapped, Lisa goes ballistic when she discovers that her parents knew about Ben's cancer for months but didn't tell her. "We didn't want to bother you," croons Rita. Although Lisa (who has been flirting with a terminally ill patient down the hall) leaves Ben's hospital room steaming mad, she returns a while later feeling absolutely no pain.

Lisa's brother, Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar), is quick to realize that she's been drinking again but he has other concerns on his mind. Accustomed to receiving a hefty monthly allowance from his father (who has never been particularly happy about the fact that his son is gay), Curtis can't seem to earn a living writing short stories. Nor has he ever been in a serious relationship with another man (although Curtis seems to have had a string of imaginary boyfriends).

Just when his father is taunting Curtis in the hope that his son will suffocate him with a pillow and put him out of his misery, they are interrupted by the entrance of a nurse (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe). The atmosphere in the room quickly deteriorates when Curtis spills the beans about his brother-in-law being a serial abuser.


Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar) and his father, Ben (Will Marchetti)
in a scene from The Lyons (Photo by: David Allen)

Things don't go any better for Curtis in the second act, when a handsome real estate agent (Joe Estlack) attempts to interest him in a vacant apartment. It soon becomes obvious that Brian (a failed actor) and Curtis (a failed homosexual) have more in common than they might imagine (it's not a pretty picture). Then Curtis's cell phone rings with the news that Ben has died -- which only makes him more desperate and aggressive with Brian.


Brian (Joe Estlack) and Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar)
in a scene from The Lyons (Photo by: David Allen)

In the final scene, Curtis has landed in the hospital after being assaulted by Brian. Acting like a spoiled brat, he refuses to eat the food brought to him by the same nurse who had been taking care of his father.


The Nurse (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) and Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar)
in a scene from The Lyons (Photo by: David Allen)

To the utter surprise of her children, a liberated and determined Rita announces her plan to run off to Aruba with a younger man whose sexual attention has made her feel like a real woman for the first time in years. Her final monologue is a masterpiece of selfishness and self-justification which leaves her children in a complete state of shock.


Rita (Ellen Ratner) says farewell to her children (Jessica Bates and
Nicholas Pelczar in a scene from The Lyons ((Photo by: David Allen)

There's no way to adequately describe the deliciously fierce and vindictive humor of Nicky Silver's brilliant script. Let's just say that after sitting through so many mediocre attempts at comedy writing, the terse impact and sheer intelligence of Silver's work is enough to set a critic's heart aflutter.

As directed by Barbara Damashek, the Aurora Theatre Company's production sizzles with Silver's abundance of toxic insecurities, repressed secrets, emotional neediness and acid-tinged zingers. The Lyons is at once achingly funny and grotesquely sad. In surprising ways, Nicholas Pelczar's Curtis (who considers his parents to be "grotesquely narcissistic and infantile") steals the show right out from under his insufferable mother's nose.


Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar), Ben (Will Marchetti) and Rita
(Ellen Ratner) in a scene from The Lyons (Photo by: David Allen)

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If Anton Chekhov's legendary Three Sisters agonize over fairly benign concerns, the three sisters at the core of ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic are caught up in much more volatile emotions following the long-expected death of their mother (a bitter old shrew who had a knack for inflicting misery on anyone who had the misfortune to meet her). Each sister has a painful secret, good reason to be suspicious of her siblings and is quite blind to her own weaknesses.

CentralWorks recently presented the world premiere of Patricia Milton's stunningly intelligent and politically provocative dramedy, which contains four impressive and powerful roles for women. As the playwright notes:

In the course of my research, I learned that the United States has established a military presence in 49 of the 54 African states. US Special Ops (including secret assassinations and mercenary training) are carried out worldwide without public knowledge. Having lived during US secret wars in Cambodia and El Salvador (among others), I worry about a repetitious cycle of war that accomplishes little, kills and injures many and produces unintended consequences. Arguing in 1869 against The Subjection of Women, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that the practice of household violence creates the blueprint for a violent foreign policy. In ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic, we get a glimpse into secret wars practiced at home and abroad.

Mary Karr wrote 'A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person.' With 7.3 million of us hanging out together on our little planet, that can make for a lot of dysfunction. While this is, at heart, a family play, it's also about fear of the 'other' and about the failure to communicate, understand and connect across seemingly insurmountable barriers. Yet, hope arises. Connection is possible when we examine our part, take responsibility and let go of the past. With enough self-knowledge, we might even break the cycle.


Maura Halloran portrays Bridgett O'Malley in the world premiere of
ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Milton's conflicted sisters are:

  • Bridgett O'Malley (Maura Halloran) is the youngest and most vulnerable of the Mahoney sisters. Having driven in from another state, she arrives at her mother's house somewhat exhausted and confused by the presence of a dark-skinned housekeeper wearing a hijab. Despite the forced cheerfulness of a Disney ring tone on her cell phone, unbeknownst to her sisters, Bridgett's husband, Joe (who doesn't function well in big-box stores), has a tendency to hit his wife whenever he gets frustrated.
  • Margaret Mary Mahoney (Jan Zvaifler) arrives without knowing that her mother is dead. The previous night (after years of angry, self-inflicted estrangement), Margaret Mary left a long and emotionally devastating message on her mother's answering machine in which she said she was willing to forgive her mother for her past misdeeds. The volatile Margaret Mary, however, has a few character flaws of her own (including anger management issues and problems with authority figures). A former Emergency Room nurse who was transferred to home health care by management, she was fired from her most recent job. Despite being a registered home health care nurse, she made no effort to help care for her dying mother.
  • Kathleen Mahoney-Finch (Danielle Thys) is the oldest sister and a professional "fixer" who works for a third-party business that places refugees from war-torn lands in American jobs while keeping them under close surveillance. An icy bureaucrat who is loath to cop to her role as a government "spook," Kathleen has handled all of the arrangements for her mother's funeral by calling in favors from some of her "clients."


Bridgett O'Malley (Maura Halloran) and her sister, Margaret Mary
Mahoney (Jan Zvaifler) are caught in a tense situation in
ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

The object of Margaret Mary's intense xenophobia is Siara Hashi (Desirée Rogers), a Somalian refugee who has been brought to America with her elderly (and ill) mother. Although Siara was supposed to be taking care of the dying Mrs. Mahoney, she was not in the house when her patient expired under mysterious circumstances. Why not? Because she needed to take care of her own mother.

Not being familiar with certain American customs, Siara did not dial 9-1-1. Nor did she think to call Mrs. Mahoney's doctor when she discovered the woman's dead body. Instead, she called her one and only contact (Kathleen Mahoney-Finch) as she had been instructed to do in an emergency.


Desirée Rogers as Siara Hashi in ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic inaugurated the 25th season of world premieres from CentralWorks with a bold new piece of theatre guaranteed to challenge any audience's comfort zone. Beautifully directed by Gary Graves, Milton's tightly-crafted play is a tense family drama with overtones of government abuse as well as family violence. It gives the company's co-founder, Jan Zvaifler, a superb opportunity to portray a chronically angry, viciously xenophobic and dangerously suspicious sibling whose street smarts from years of working in an Emergency Room prove to be remarkably accurate.

While Maura Halloran, Denielle Thys and Desirée Rogers deliver solid performances, their characters are nearly blown out of the water by the finger-pointing, unforgiving and explosive Margaret Mary Mahoney. In terms of raw theatre, this a powerful sight to see (make no mistake, Milton's new play is the perfect vehicle for regional artistic directors seeking a drama written by a female playwright with four solid roles for women).


Bridgett O'Malley (Maura Halloran) and her older sister,
Kathleen Mahoney-Finch (Danielle Thys) discuss family
matters while Siara Hashi (Desirée Rogers) looks on in
ENEMIES: Foreign and Domestic (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape