Upon entering the Wild Project, the audience is confronted with plain brown boxes, clearly overflowing with memories and regret (and props). This simple and utilitarian design sets the tone for the next 100 minutes of Kara Manning's Sleeping Rough, now receiving a thoughtful, if a bit drowsy, world premiere from Page 73. While this meditation on death and moving on has a lot of heartfelt things to say about these issues, none of it is particularly earth-shattering or revelatory. Chances are you'll be sleeping just fine the night you see the show.
Charlie is dead to begin with. He was killed in Iraq at age 21. A latter-day flower child and devotee of Dave Matthews and Phish, he mysteriously left the comforts of bourgeois bohemia in the mid-oughts to join the US military. We learn all of this from his mother, Joanna (Kellie Overbey), a hippie artist in her own right, as she mourns her son in the immediate aftermath of his 2008 death. Not your typical military mom, she torches the American flag that accompanied her son's ashes. Joanna's grief and anger at the United States leads her back to London, the city of her wild youth and current home of her ex-husband (and Charlie's father), Mark (Quentin Maré), a BBC Radio 1 Britpop DJ. Joanna and Mark's daughter Izzy (Renata Friedman) hotly pursues her mother across the pond, but Joanna is too bereft to pay any attention to her living child. She would rather work through her grief while squatting in an "artists' collective" in South Wandsworth and plaster graffiti of Charlie's face all over the city.
There is an appropriate aura of permanent adolescence about Friedman's portrayal of Izzy. She's gangly and awkward and seems always on the verge of tears. A 24-year-old apiologist (a biologist who studies bees), she is the quintessential over-serious millennial, chasing after her brash and reckless baby-boomer mother.
And while Joanna may be a rebel, she's certainly not the fun kind. Overbey brings an iciness to the role more chilling than the winter rains of London, especially in her interactions with her daughter. This complicated mother–daughter relationship is the most fully realized in the play. Joanna makes no secret of the fact that Charlie was her favorite child. Maré plays Mark as a constantly agitated and bitter middle-aged Englishman, rounding out this dour trio.
These portrayals become clearer thanks to Kaye Voyce's simple yet evocative costumes. Mark's too-young haircut, streaked with grey, tells the story of an aging pop DJ, likely past his career prime. Izzy's skinnier-than-skinny jeans make her look like the world's biggest 13-year-old. A leather jacket and black ski cap transform Joanna into the 48-year-old anarchist street artist she's determined to be.
Clad in their 2008 urban apparel, the actors do a fine job with Manning's hefty text. So much of the play is soliloquies delivered to the audience or into a cell phone, yet all three have found ways of breathing life into words that could easily wither under the stage lights and bring tears to our eyes, not out of pathos, but sheer boredom.
Luckily, it never gets there thanks to the steady pace set by director Sam Buntrock (the Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George). Keeping the audience engaged is a particularly impressive feat considering this play never really builds any momentum.
None of this is to say that Manning's play is necessarily bad. If you're in the mood for a heavy and slow-moving evening of death and sadness at the theater, Sleeping Rough is the ticket to buy. It captures the feeling of lethargic depression that sometimes accompanies grief and projects it onto the audience through its tone. It's a difficult funk to shake, even when you leave the theater. I just wanted to go home and pull the covers over my eyes afterwards; and when I did, I slept like a baby.