Erin J. O'Brien, James Denton, and Liz Vital
in How Cissy Grew
(© Ed Krieger)
Erin J. O'Brien, James Denton, and Liz Vital
in How Cissy Grew
(© Ed Krieger)
James Denton, best known for his work as Mike Delfino on ABC's Desperate Housewives, and real-life wife Erin O'Brien do impressive work as an imploding couple traumatized by the kidnapping of their child in Susan Johnston's How Cissy Grew now at the El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood.

The drama, which focuses on how this event ruined the family's dynamic for 18 years, absolutely has its impassioned heart in the right place and benefits from a strong ensemble of four. But some of Casey Stengel's directorial decisions undercut the work's full dramatic potential.

Butch (Denton) and Darla (O'Brien) focus on their loss, guilt, and rage towards each other, even years after Cissy (played by young adult Liz Vital throughout) has been returned. Although she was an infant with no cognitive memory of the experience, she feeds off both parents' negative energy to become a damaged young woman. As an adolescent, she scares the other kids with violent stories of alien abductions, and as a teen, she acts out with promiscuity and drug abuses. No one can move on from the past.

The show's non-linear approach successfully plays into the metaphor that memories are like shards of glass that can be shattered and discombobulated, and that memories flood back to us without reason and order. However, the segments focused upon are snippets, giving the audience little time to fully understand Johnston's purpose. Moreover, there's no rhythm to the scenes. And the final scene sheds light on a realization that the audience has already long been told, making it irrelevant at this late moment.

The play's and production's flaws aside, Denton has ample opportunity to demonstrate a smoldering outrage and yet hapless irresponsibility, while O'Brien exposes naked emotion as a woman incapable of handling the weight dropped on her shoulders. The pair's chemistry is best represented in the opening fight, a two-way monologue rant with both shouting over each other and neither listening. Vital is heartfelt as the reckless Cissy, who has emotionally shut down. Stewart W. Calhoun is given little to do as the several boys in Cissy's life; yet he manages to be spellbinding and seductive as Cissy's New York lover and pensive as her boyhood friend.