This gasp-inducing play takes a long time to reach a boil, but when it does, hold onto your hat.
Drama abounds in Unbroken Circle, James Wesley's new play about a dysfunctional Texas family, now playing at St. Luke's Theatre. You might not know it until the second act, however, so resist the urge to skip out at intermission. I promise: It's worth it. If you enjoy the extreme satisfaction that comes from the artful revelation of salacious family secrets, this play is for you.
For playwright Wesley, this show is a family affair both onstage and off: Unbroken Circle is produced by Wesley's husband, renowned Broadway deconstructivist Seth Rudetsky. Wesley also acts in the play and his real-life daughter, Juli, plays his daughter on stage. First presented as a workshop as part of Rudetsky and Wesley's Midtown March Medley, the show now receives a full production Off-Broadway.
Set on Galveston Island in 1970, Unbroken Circle tells the tale of a clan who very well could be the downwardly mobile Texan cousins of a Tennessee Williams family. Ruby (Suzanna Hay) is the no-nonsense matriarch. At the urging of her father, she was married at a young age to her husband, Travis, when she became pregnant with twins. Her son, Bobby (James Wesley), recently moved back into the family home, his Yankee wife, Cheryl (Lori Hammel), and their two daughters, Cathy (Stacey Bone-Gleason) and Patti (Juli Wesley), in tow. They've just buried Travis, and they're gathering to stuff their faces and read his will. Ruby's younger sister, born-again Christian/alcoholic June (Eve Plumb of TV's The Brady Bunch) joins the festivities, along with Ruby's estranged daughter, Edna (Anika Larsen). What starts as your run-of-the-mill funeral reception spirals into utter chaos once the liquor and secrets start flowing.
This bunch has more skeletons in the closet than a Tim Burton spook house: Why did Edna run away from home at age 15, only to return now? Why does Aunt June think that Travis wrote a new will, leaving her the house, instead of his wife, Ruby? Why can't she find that will now? And why was Travis hoarding his 12-year-old granddaughter Patti's underwear in between his mattress and box spring? All is revealed in good time in this simmering drama, which is quite slow to reach a boil, but gasp-inducing once it does.
Director Jason St. Little deserves much credit for these gasps. Timing is everything in a play like this and he has gotten it just right. The actors are, on the whole, tight and engaged: Hay delivers a disarmingly authentic portrayal of Ruby, a woman who has had a difficult life but persevered through it all with a dishrag in hand. Her moments with Larsen are some of the play's most fascinating and fully realized.
Plumb offers a healthy dose of comic relief. June is a sitcom version of a Southern Evangelical. Her lines are the show's funniest, eliciting uproarious laughter when they land. Unfortunately, Plumb's delivery is a bit hit or miss. There were several moments when I could tell she was grasping for the right words.
Set and lighting designer Josh Iacovelli has created an appropriately naturalistic yet economical set. The wood paneling in the living room and the rotary phone in the kitchen illustrate an immediate sense of time and place — the not-so-distant past — when what the neighbors thought often trumped how members of your actual family felt. In many places this still holds true.
Americans often look askance at cultures in which the practice of arranged marriage is still commonplace, yet one doesn't have to gaze far to see this same practice (usually through economic coercion) in our own history. Rather than the "partnership" or "bond of love" that we now think of when considering marriage, it has traditionally been an economic transaction to solidify alliances and preserve family honor. Unbroken Circle is a good reminder of this, courtesy of a promising playwright and his husband.