Friday evening, the 20th of August, was all that an evening of live theatre should be - exciting, moving, and provocative. Cozy in alignment were the West Coast premiere of Mark Roberts's Parasite Drag (a story that shows how there is no calm even in the eye of a family storm), some of the best acting around, and, well, ditto for the director. In other words, David Fofi and The Elephant Theatre Company have produced another whopper.
No compromise marred the translation from script to stage. The production was seamless, felt spontaneous, looked organic. The result was a story that sped along even though its road was bumpy and continued to do so when the same road was blown to smithereens. If Edith's and Archie's chairs from All in the Family could land in the Smithsonian Institution, then Danny Cistone's set should become set designer's de jure image of the interior of a small Middle American home. Atmospherically and spatially the kitchen and living room blended into the audience. It wasn't so much that we were watching the performance. It was more like we had come to pay respects but then got thrown centrifugally back off the by the pending storm outside and the emotion maelstrom within. Joel Daavid's lighting, of which more later, created a perfect tone of calumny past, catastrophe pending, and calamity realized. In brief, the spirit and the tone of the story were wonderfully staged. And the characterizations were stark raving magnificent.
Conceived as a reunion between two brothers, Gene (Robert Foster) and Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), the story recounts their vigil for their wayward sister's death-by-AIDS. As if the occasion for the lingering death of a sister wasn't difficult enough, Gene's marriage to Joellen (Mim Drew) had unraveled decades before. She plans to leave him once the crisis is over. In the meantime she gets by with indifference and the smoking of pot. Gene's found consolation if not chaste sanctuary in God and has effectively turned their home into a monastery in which celibacy, sobriety, and reliance on a distant higher power replace closer-to-home attention to and affection for his wife. When Ronny and his wife Susie (Agatha Nowicki) unexpectedly appear, all hell breaks loose.
From the moment Ronnie appears it's apparent that the past has clearly influenced the present. With her Southern charm and humor, Susie tries without success to referee the brothers' skirmishes. What emerges is not the story of the final moments of a sibling's life but a chain reaction of how a suicide prompted a heinous act that set three lives spinning out of functional control.
Foster creates an enthralling mixture of impotence paralysis and spiraling despair. The magnitude of his emotions suggests that their origin was not the result of an ill-conceived marriage but something darker, more sinister. At the start he was aloof and put-upon by Joellen's wheedling for attention, for intimacy. His interests and commitment, however, were Elsewhere. As the story progresses, as we learn more about what happened to him, his brother, and his sister when they were younger, he seems to vaporize before our eyes.
Kestner, likewise, is captivating. Though Susie explains that Ronnie is really a big ol' softie, it's clear that proximity to Gene has surfaced unresolved pain not sufficiently buried by the intervening years. He's uncaged, almost feral. It's not just his shrugged shoulder lurching around the living room, his staccato rat-tat-tat of "fuck this" and "fuck that," and his loud, raucous, anything-can-happen voice. It's the realization that, yes, he would do the unspeakable in that hospital room, the unmentionable on that living room sofa. If the past caused Gene to retreat inwards, that same past caused Ronnie explode outward and rage against the world.
Drew's Joellen is so done with this marriage that she barely musters compassion to support Gene through his ordeal. She balances resignation with the faintest spark of hope, all the while managing grief for her ailing sister-in-law, despair for her marriage, and something resembling self-esteem for herself. Nowicki stuck out, not just because of her refreshing lack of baggage but because, in spite of all that was going on around her, only she found calm in the center of so many storms. Her hallowed status could be seen in a remarkable bit of lighting design. At the beginning of the second act she sits at a table with Joellen, looking at a photograph album. For a moment, the overhead light casts a halo around her head. Though it lasted but a few seconds, the symbolism reverberated through the rest of the production.
Performances are 8pm, Thursday - Saturday. The play runs until September 18. Tickets are $20. The Elephant Space is located at 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard. For more information call (213) 614-0556 or visit www.elephanttheatrecompany.com.