Maureen Sebastian, Hoon Lee, Stephen Jutras, and
William Jackson Harper in The Children of Vonderly
(© Matt Zugale)
Maureen Sebastian, Hoon Lee, Stephen Jutras, and
William Jackson Harper in The Children of Vonderly
(© Matt Zugale)
"What's to become of the children?" Those are the first words uttered in Lloyd Suh's intriguing, but uneven new play The Children of Vonderly, now being presented by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company at the East 13th Street Theatre.

Following the death of a man named Vonderly, his multiracial household is set adrift. Although age-wise, his adopted children are adults, they all have mental or physical disabilities which they have either overcome or remain hampered by. Their Jewish adoptive mother Norma (Lynn Cohen) tries and fails to take her husband's place, as does son Jerry (William Jackson Harper), who is confined to a wheelchair.

Noah (Hoon Lee) and Georgia (Maureen Sebastien) have begun a possibly incestuous romance (they're related by adoption, not by blood), and long for escape. Benjamin (Stephen Jutras), who is a dwarf, is the most successful of Vonderly's children; he is an accountant who attempts to manage the family's finances but is met with resistance. The two remaining children Sasha (Jackie Chung) and Abraham (Shawn Randall) are mentally impaired and unlikely to be able to function on their own. Benjamin hires a behavioral therapist, Chuck (Paco Tolson), to help out, but his presence threatens Jerry's own precarious place in the scheme of things. He is forced to confront his own desires and ambitions, and weigh them against the needs of his family.

What motivated the deceased Vonderly to take in these castoffs from society remains shrouded in mystery. Norma cruelly repeats how they were unwanted as babies, in order to make them feel guilty and ungrateful. But did Vonderly adopt them so that he could keep them as perpetual children, dependent upon him for all of their special needs? Or did he mean to raise them up, hoping they would eventually become strong enough to strike out on their own?

The domestic drama can be read as a metaphor for colonialism and the upheaval created at its end. As such, it raises some very interesting issues, particularly as performed by this multiethnic cast. The script itself doesn't mark any of the children by race, although there is a line in which Noah says to Jerry, "It's more than a little ridiculous we're Jewish" verbally reinforcing the visual disconnect of this Asian-American man and African-American man living lives that are seemingly incongruent with their physical appearance. There's also a lot of talk about freedom and obligation, and who's going to run things now that "Dad" is gone.

Among the actors, the best work is done by Lee and Sebastien, who create nuanced portrayals. Lee's monologue, delivered late in the play, is quite moving, and the primary reason the production ends on such a strong note. As Jerry, Harper is at the center of the action and has some truly terrific scenes; however, he also tends to indicate some of his emotions as well as being unconvincing when playing drunk.

Cohen has some fine moments, but doesn't always have enough playing underneath the lines she speaks. Jutras is consistently engaging as Benjamin, although his major confrontation with Jerry comes across as a bit forced. Tolson does well enough with an underwritten role. Chung and Randall have the difficult task of portraying mental deficiencies, but too often overplay them to the point of caricature. However, Randall does have a convincing second act scene opposite Harper that is much subtler and therefore more effective.

Director Ralph B. Peña has not yet balanced the overall tone of the production. While not without humor, many of the scenes are played with a kind of gravitas that verges on the melodramatic, and occasionally crosses over. There's a lot of potential within both script and production, but it seems only partially fulfilled.