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Theatre in Review: Unbroken Circle (St. Luke's Theatre)

Anika Larsen, Juli Wesley, James Wesley, Eve Plumb, and Suzanna Hay. Photo: Bill Selby

Unbroken Circle takes place just after a funeral, but, as it happens, the death of a loved one is the least of the characters' problems. (And, as we learn, the term "loved one" is strictly honorific.) What starts out as an amusingly tart-tongued comedy of bad manners evolves into a Southern gothic tale loaded with more dysfunctions than you can shake a stick at. If nothing else, James Wesley's play may prove therapeutic; no matter how bad one's family may seem to be, next to this crew, they are the Waltons and the Brady Bunch rolled into one.

It is a June day in Galveston, Texas, 1970. Ruby, a matron in her 60s, is so busy whipping up a fried-chicken dinner that she chooses to skip her husband's burial. This doesn't prevent her from grumbling that her daughter, Edna, hasn't shown up at all. "Mama, you missed the funeral," she is admonished. "Well, at least I made the effort," she replies, spitting out each syllable furiously, if not entirely logically. One by one, the relatives trail in: Bobby, Ruby's son, a bus driver with a long and unedifying employment history; Cheryl, his devoted, but clear-eyed, wife; Cathy, their older daughter, who wants to know why she can't go on a post-funeral date; and Patti, their younger daughter, a budding fashion designer. (When told that her clothes are worthy of Paris, she asks, wonderingly, "Paris, Texas?") Most amusingly, there is June, Ruby's sister, a much-divorced, wine-guzzling Christian scold. When Patti, bored, asks her to join her in playing The Game of Life, June snaps, "Oh honey, only Jesus should play that game."

The first half hour of Unbroken Circle demonstrates Wesley's eye for his characters' contradictions and his ear for their salty, damning-with-faint-praise discourse. Adding a sense of mystery is the appearance of Edna, who fled the family at the first possible moment and has held them at arm's length ever since. (In a nice bit of period detail, she reveals that she is up for a job at Lyndon B. Johnson's new presidential library.) Edna clearly has plenty on her mind, and equally clearly has no intention of sharing it; as a result, we listen more closely, trying to detect the fault lines that have so obviously fractured this clan.

After that, fasten your seat belts and hold on tight. June starts showing an untoward interest in reading the will, claiming that she is meant to inherit the family manse, a turn of events that would leave everyone else, but Edna, homeless. But when the will is produced, it says nothing of the kind, and, soon after, we see Ruby destroying a document with a suspiciously legal appearance. That's not the only secret Ruby is keeping; when Cheryl discovers that Ruby's departed husband kept samples of little Patti's underwear between the mattresses of his bed, the revelations start coming thick and fast. The list is remarkably long and astonishing sordid; without going into detail, let's just say that this little Texas household harbors more crimes than the house of Atreus.

This is where Unbroken Circle runs into trouble. It would take a master playwright to wrestle this material, packed as it is with instances of pedophilia, rape, alcoholism, estate fraud, and murder, into a credible and emotionally potent drama; it would be enough to send Eugene O'Neill himself running for cover. Wesley, an actor turning his hand to writing, simply loses control of this overloaded material, and, after a little while, his shocker-a-minute narrative simply beggars belief. (At the performance I attended, the audience got the giggles over the revelation of the darkest family secret; it might have been nervous laughter, but I don't think so.)

That Unbroken Circle remains watchable throughout is a fine testament to the cast, which is directed by Jason St. Little. Lori Hammel is a fine Cheryl, especially when she is stunned to discover that Ruby is willing bribing -- or is it blackmailing? -- her to keep the news about Patti's panties under wraps. Suzanna Hay captures Ruby's slow-burning rage as well as moments of real tenderness; she almost makes credible Ruby's foolish belief that such terrors can simply be endured and forgotten. Anika Larsen endows Edna with an eerie poise that makes you wonder what is going on inside. Wesley captures Bobby's fond, feckless ways and sudden eruptions of fury; if he doesn't quite pull off the scene containing the big bombshell about his past, he should have a few sharp words with the playwright.) Wesley's daughter, Juli, is a refreshingly natural presence as Patti. If Eve Plumb's June seems to have wandered in from the Beth Henley comedy next door, she nevertheless gets her laughs. (When Edna expresses surprise that June, a late-in-life student at Oral Roberts University, is allowed to booze it up, June waves the remark away, muttering that such rules only apply on campus.)

Because St. Luke's Theatre is essentially a repertory house, plays like Unbroken Circle are only allowed minimal production values. This is too bad, because Josh Iacovelli's set doesn't really give us a sense of the house that is the object of battle. In any case, Brian Hemesath's costumes are true to the patterns and synthetic fabrics of the era.

Unbroken Circle is based on incidents from Wesley's family history, but his skills -- a flair for funny lines and a genuine empathy for mixed-up his characters -- seem to point him away from the stark drama this material seems to demand. He may have to wait for another day to take on his family's demons.--David Barbour

(20 June 2013)

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