Samatha Soule and Shane McRae
in Killers and Other Family
(© Sandra Coudert)
Samatha Soule and Shane McRae
in Killers and Other Family
(© Sandra Coudert)
The old saying "You can't go home again," makes no mention of one's childhood past knocking on the door, but that's exactly what happens in Lucy Thurber's Killers and Other Family, which is receiving an uneven but consistently riveting revival at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Lizzie (Samantha Soule), just two weeks away from completing her Ph.D. dissertation, has established a comfortable life for herself in Manhattan, miles away from the sordid- sounding, lower class world in rural Massachusetts in which she grew up. All of her achievements start to vanish, however, as soon as her brother Jeff (Dashiell Eaves) and her childhood friend Danny (Shane McRae) show up unexpectedly in the apartment that she shares with her lover, Claire (Aya Cash).

Almost immediately Lizzie's dutifully fetching the guys beers. And when Jeff reveals the reason for their surprise visit -- he needs money so he and Danny can flee the country -- theatergoers can sense that Lizzie's about to lose everything that she's worked to achieve in her new life. Still, it takes a while for this sense of foreboding to be realized, and though there's much that's schematic to the play, the piece is never uninteresting.

McRae makes Danny captivatingly sexy and feral. He has the ability to make casual conversation subtly brutal, particularly as he tries to win Claire's approval, and he's equally adept when Danny turns almost childlike around Lizzie, desperately needing her attention in the way that a small boy needs his mother. Similarly, Soule seamlessly navigates Lizzie's complex relationships with her brother, old friend, and partner, as well as the twists and turns in Lizzie's behavior as her old life and new life crash together. It's an enormously powerful and deeply moving performance.

Director Caitriona McLaughlin's fine work with her ensemble -- which includes solid and often affecting turns from Eaves and Cash -- is to be commended. The characters' often unpredictable behavior never seems unnatural, which helps immensely in mitigating the sometimes formulaic nature of Thurber's play. At the same time, though, McLaughlin's ültra-naturalistic approach to the material makes some of Thurber's absurdist flights difficult to accept. On many levels, watching this staging is akin to watching one of Tennessee Williams' later fantastical works that's been directed as if it were a kitchen-sink drama.

The grounding of the action extends to the cozy enclave that John McDermott has created in his effective scenic design and Isaac Butler's enormously rich soundscape, which brings the sounds of a busy New York street through the apartment's window. And yet not all is perfect either: there are flourishes -- such as abrupt silences in the sound from outside or sharp shifts in Benjamin Ehrenreich's lighting design -- that seem arbitrarily applied. As with the flourishes in Thurber's writing, these design elements don't gibe with the overarching realism of the production, and as a result, Lizzie's journey to her past and through her present never fully convinces.