Broken Home Syndrome

09/15/2017 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2017

Best known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton frequently noted that during his extensive research in preparation for each interview, he was amazed by the number of successful actors whose childhoods were severely impacted by the stress resulting from their parents' separation and/or divorce. As parents begin to squabble, children can't help listening to the insults that are hurled back and forth. Sometimes children are asked to take sides in a failing marriage; at other times they learn (the hard way) that their parents no longer love each other and that their parents' love for their children might also be diminishing.

It doesn't matter if a crumbling relationship is a traditional marriage, a close friendship, or the intimate give-and-take between a mentor and mentee. Factors ranging from substance abuse and infidelity to financial pressures and constant lying can contribute to one's severe disillusionment. Alan Jay Lerner's lyric for this song from 1956's My Fair Lady sums up the situation pretty well.

What happens when a shining hero is revealed to be a pitifully flawed human being? Or when a loved one moves out and visitation rights strain a child's loyalty? In some cases, there is a gnawing sense of confusion and guilt that a parental split may have been caused by something the child said or did.

Back in the 1950s, few people talked openly about seeing a therapist. Nor did they discuss their family's problems in public. Nowadays, dysfunctional families have become so commonplace that anything even bordering on normalcy seems about as rare as a unicorn.

* * * * * * * * *

One of the monologues I attended on the opening night of the 2017 San Francisco Fringe Festival was written and performed by Jeremy Julian Greco with appropriate levels of childhood awe, justifiable sarcasm, and an adolescent's frustration at his parents' repeated inability to deliver on their promises. Directed by Mark Kenward, Keeping Up With The Jorgensons takes the audience back to 1982, when 10-year-old Jeremy was taken on a road trip from Santa Cruz to Orange County to attend the wedding of a relative he'd never met.

As far as Jeremy is concerned, the only upside to this trip is the chance that his father might take him to Disneyland. Even if that means tickling and massaging his father's smelly feet or sleeping in the same bed as his grandmother, he's willing to go the distance if it earns him admission to "the happiest place on earth."

Jeremy Julian Greco
(Photo by: Ryan Bieber)
Jeremy Julian Greco

God knows, his family is not famous for providing the happiest experiences for Jeremy. Court-ordered visits with his father result in a drastic change of cuisine from his mother's healthy diet to the kind of fast food menu favored by his father's male roommates (one of whom is referred to as "One-Nut"), whose idea of decorating is to leave piles of old cheesecake magazines around their apartment.

Nor is a road trip with his cranky father much fun. Between constantly being addressed as "numb nut" and not being allowed to stop to relieve himself, Jeremy encounters an endlessly confusing obstacle course between his pants zipper and anything resembling a toilet. Even after arriving at his paternal grandparents' home (where his father is busy flirting with the next-door neighbor), Jeremy can barely lay claim to a moment of solitude without some relative trying to enter the bathroom to check if there is any blood in the boy's urine. While learning first-hand about the unfortunate genetic resemblance between himself, his father, and his paternal grandfather, the impressionable 10-year-old is introduced to a distant relative whom his father describes as "the ugliest woman alive."

Keeping Up With The Jorgensons proved to be a delightful hour of mirth mixed with adolescent angst brought on by a cast of characters that could make All in the Family, Roseanne, and Married...with Children seem a bit too Disneyfied. Here's a teaser of Greco's endearing performance.

* * * * * * * * *

Although Barbara Selfridge's monologue (Sex, Math, and Seizures) is ominously subtitled “Be Kind to Your Children: They’ll Choose Your Nursing Home,” it is filled with hilarity as well as a few justifiably tear-jerking moments. Some members of the audience might have trouble juggling the misadventures of sex addicts, epileptics, and a fetish for prime numbers but, as directed by David Ford, Selfridge's strongest assets are revealed to be her warmth and compassion. A lusty sense of humor helps to balance much of the craziness in her family's history.

  • When Barbara was an impressionable 11-year-old, her father (a scholarly mathematician) made the decision to have her developmentally disabled sister, Margaret, institutionalized. When Barbara was 49, she found herself tasked with the responsibility of institutionalizing her strange and estranged father.
  • With an emotionally distant father and a rather ditsy mother, Barbara has been the only member of the family to be in constant touch with her sister who, although brain damaged and vulnerable to seizures, sings backup in New Hope (a rock band for people with special needs).
  • After coming onstage while pushing a walker, part of Selfridge's one-woman show involves her demonstration of how her sister's epileptic seizures look and sound. Such moments are offset by her riotous description of what it's like to juggle phone calls between one parent in Oregon and another in Florida in order to discuss the care of her sister at a facility in California.
Barbara Selfridge
Barbara Selfridge

Selfridge's recollection of going on a date with a man who is equally fixated on prime numbers (but deciding not to spend the night with him) delivers some poignant yet very funny moments for the audience. Her description of attending a professional conference where social workers were encouraged "to guilt-trip middle-aged women into forgiving the fathers who abandoned them at the time of their parents’ divorce" draws horrified gasps from the audience, only to be followed by her tale of helping her failing father prepare to give a speech at a conference for number theorists.

More than anything, Selfridge's monologue displays the kind of patience and unconditional love required to be a caregiver for members of her family who, under different circumstances, might be caring for her. As she outlines the daily frustrations of coping with a loved one's medical needs and the unexpected humor in discovering that her sister has a crush on one of the new Filipino male attendants at her facility, Selfridge gives a masterful lesson in how to make lemonade from the lemons life puts in the hands of so many people. Her brief Kickstarter video offers solid proof of her never-ending commitment to her sister while illustrating the challenge of transforming her life experiences into a tenderhearted, yet often hilarious, one-woman show.

* * * * * * * * *

An infant's well-being lies at the core of Luna Gale, Rebecca Gilman's wrenching family drama which begins as two meth addicts wait in a secure room for news about the status of their baby girl, who was brought to an emergency room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suffering from dehydration under questionable circumstances. Peter (Devin S. O’Brien) is incoherent and barely arousable while Karlie (Alix Cuadra) is fiercely devouring a slice of cheesecake from the hospital's cafeteria and chasing it down with handfuls of Skittles.

Peter (Devin S. O&#39;Brien), Karlie (Alix Cuadra), and Caroline (Jamie Jones) in a scene from <strong><em>Luna Gale</em></st
(Photo by: David Allen)
Peter (Devin S. O'Brien), Karlie (Alix Cuadra), and Caroline (Jamie Jones) in a scene from Luna Gale

Eventually, a social worker named Caroline (Jamie Jones) enters the room. clipboard in hand, to assess Luna's young parents and see if she can steer them toward the kind of help which will allow them to raise their child once the infant is released from the hospital. Later, when Caroline visits Karlie's mother, Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey), she notes that the understandably nervous nurse keeps stressing her faith in Jesus and her devout Christianity. When Cindy asks why Caroline laughed at something she said, the exhausted social worker confesses that when Cindy said "Jesus is my personal savior" she misheard her and thought she said "Jesus is my personal trainer."

Caroline's reason for assessing Cindy's home is purely clinical. As Josh Costello (Aurora Theatre Company's Literary Manager and Artistic Associate) explains:

“Social workers are obliged to take children away from parents who are abusive or whose neglect threatens the children's safety. The top two reasons for children to be removed from their parents and placed in foster care are neglect and parental drug abuse (those two reasons are far more common than any of the others). High-profile cases of children being abused or even murdered by foster parents and by birth parents have brought blame and judgment on the system and on social workers themselves. In the play, baby Luna is initially placed in kinship care -- rather than a foster family, she stays with another relative while her parents attempt to complete their rehabilitation. This is usually seen as preferable to placement with a foster family. Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) ends the legal parent/child relationship and is considered a last resort.”
Caroline (Jamie Jones) discusses baby Luna&#39;s case with her boss, Cliff (Joshua Marx), in a scene from <strong><em>Luna Ga
(Photo by: David Allen)
Caroline (Jamie Jones) discusses baby Luna's case with her boss, Cliff (Joshua Marx), in a scene from Luna Gale

Their initial meeting reveals that Cindy has a long history of being judgmental and is easily provoked into taking umbrage if she suspects someone is critical of her faith. As Karlie and Peter struggle to pull themselves together, Cindy, aided and abetted by her good friend, Pastor Jay (Kevin Kemp), starts pushing for TPR so that her grandchild can be kept away from evil and "saved" in time for the coming "End of Days." 

Caroline (Jamie Jones) observes Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey) and Pastor Jay (Kevin Kemp) in a scene from <strong><em>Luna Gale</
(Photo by: David Allen)
Caroline (Jamie Jones) observes Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey) and Pastor Jay (Kevin Kemp) in a scene from Luna Gale

Having dealt with all kinds of family situations during her 25 years as a professional social worker, Caroline (who is struggling to handle an impossible workload while suffering from occupational burnout, whose previous boss was guilty of gross incompetence and destruction of patient files, and whose new district supervisor is a white male bureaucrat with no field experience) tries to keep the proceedings moving along strictly by the book. But as little bits of information start to hint at a disturbingly familiar pattern, the social worker's gut instincts start to alter her perspective.

Karlie (Alix Cuadra) and Peter (Devin S. O&#39;Brien) struggle with their rehabilitation in a scene from <strong><em>Luna Gal
(Photo by: David Allen)
Karlie (Alix Cuadra) and Peter (Devin S. O'Brien) struggle with their rehabilitation in a scene from Luna Gale

In February of 2014, when Luna Gale received its world premiere from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Charles Isherwood asserted in his review for The New York Times that Gilman's play focused on two pathologies making headlines: sexual abuse within a family and the corrosive effects of drug addiction. There is, however, a third, equally insidious pathology that rarely gets mentioned despite its increasing importance in American politics and aggressive proselytism within the United States Armed Forces: the willful acceptance of Christianity as a cultural default and the need for born-again Christians to accuse anyone who might challenge their beliefs and/or actions of persecution.

In his OpEd piece for The New York Times entitled The Dogma of Dianne FeinsteinSohrab Ahmari explained that, during a recent confirmation hearing, the senior senator from California may have subjected Amy Coney Barrett to intense grilling about Catholic dogma while being blind to her own liberal dogma. Easily overlooked in the case of baby Luna is a question that few people want to bring out into the open: If we can label pedophilia and drug abuse as aberrant and unacceptable behaviors, why should religious brainwashing, and bullying get a pass?

Working on Kate Boyd's effective unit set (with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Kurt Landisman), Tom Ross has directed Aurora's ensemble with care to make sure that despite the concerns and hysterics of a a self-righteous mother, her drug-addicted daughter, a manipulative pastor, an unprofessionally coercive administrator, and an emotionally exhausted social worker, the painful truth of baby Luna's predicament never fades from sight.

Caroline (Jamie Jones) chats with Cliff (Joshua Marx) in a scene from <strong><em>Luna Gale</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Caroline (Jamie Jones) chats with Cliff (Joshua Marx) in a scene from Luna Gale

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Alix Cuadra's Karlie and Devin S. O'Brien's Peter who, despite being placed in classes for "gifted" students have little to no skills in what is referred to these days as "adulting." Jennifer Vega has some nice scenes as Lourdes, a young female client of Caroline's who has turned 18 and graduated from rehabilitation.

The three Christians (portrayed by Laura Jane Bailey, Kevin Kemp, and Joshua Marx) present as unusually determined (if unintentional) villains in ways mirrored throughout contemporary society as Evangelicals become more outspoken about their preparations for the Rapture. As always, Jamie Jones delivers a knockout performance as Caroline, bringing her impressive dramatic versatility front and center in a performance that captures the cynicism and exhaustion of professional burnout in a woman who, for deeply personal reasons, is determined to remain optimistic about life.

Performances of Luna Gale continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley through October 1 (click here for tickets).

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS