Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wyoming: Memories and Secrets

"Your family's the only place where time is dense...where age is compressed."

Photo by Hunter Canning
A family keeping secrets is not new territory in the theater but Brian Watkins's Wyoming by Lesser America is a moody addition to that oeuvre looking at memory, family, and how we cope with the past. With a killer performance from the always impressive Sarah Sokolovic, colorful underscoring from Robin Pecknold and Neil Morgan, and just enough tension to hold the happenings together it's a solid if sometimes uneven effort.

Part memory play, part origin story, part Thanksgiving showdown, this family explores their memories of the definitive moment in their lives--when their eldest brother Adam (Roger Lirtsman), age 16 at the time, killed their father (Carter Hudson). Twenty years have passed since they have seen Adam.  Their mother Maggie (Laura Ramadei) never talks about what happened that night.  But recently the youngest brother Grant (Nate Miller) tells his brother Tom (Daniel Abeles) that he thinks he's seen Adam in a nearby diner. Oldest sister April (Sokolovic) is a hard-drinking, single mother of six year-old Sarah (Layla Khoshnoudi). April is soon to host Thanksgiving for the whole family and she has been keeping secrets about what she saw that night as well.

The play is staged by Dayna Taymor with multiple scenes in the same large open space. When the parents are spoken of a light rises on the couple as they were when they first met in their twenties.  When Adam is talked about a light rises on him in the diner, now a man in his thirties.  Otherwise the actors remain frozen in the dark.  Seeing the characters in these glimpses of flashbacks and recollections doesn't add the punch that it should. Rather than be misty, water colored memories the moments feel a bit flat.  Perhaps it was the slow lighting cues or that the action recreated isn't all that interesting to look at, but the collective feeling that this family is trapped in their memories is more academic than evoked by the staging. I get that that was what they were trying for, but I didn't feel the impact of that.  That said, there's a beautiful sense of place with Edward T. Morris's set design of corrugated walls and projection design of family slide photos. Pecknold (of the band Fleet Foxes) and Morgan provide an evocative score that ratchets up the tension and provides a colorful layer to the emotional content.

For all the heavy issues at hand, Watkins's play itself is quite funny.  But the cast seems to still be working on the pacing and energy.  Sokolovic is the exception as she sort of arrives like a hurricane and never stops.  She jolts the plays energy by 200% and its a welcome respite.  Her character is more showy than the taciturn men but things become a lot more lively when we shift from the recollections of the past in Act I to the Thanksgiving in 1995 in Act II.  Though I did like Miller's performance as the baby brother who's always playing catch up on family lore as well. 

When the family who always tries to avoid difficult things gets thrown together at Thanksgiving the tension mounts and each sibling deals with the awkwardness, just-below-the-surface-feelings, and their reluctant mother in turn. The play calls for the mother, Maggie, to be played by an actress around the same age as her children.  I'm sure this is to make the difficulties that she went through as a young woman a little more connected to her children who are now that age but it's a big ask and Ramadei struggles to portray this older character (though she's right on key as the younger woman flirting with the man who will become her husband).  

When Lirtsman (who looks like he could be a cousin of a beardy Bradley Cooper/Michael Cera love child) gives voice to all the years of this family's pent up struggle, it should be the big catharsis--and it almost is--but for some reason Watkins opts to deal with these messy parts of this family's life in a neat and pat way.  The denouement ends up being both on the nose and a little bit confusing. The final epilogue did not leave me with a sense of deeper understanding of the family, time, or memory.  Frankly, I strained to see the action in the dim light and felt that the impact would have been the same had it ended on Adam.

The play and production may have their hiccups but there's a lot of interesting work being done. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

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