Review: A Family Tries to Escape From Its Emotional Cage in The Animal Kingdom

Ruby Thomas’s intense drama makes its US premiere at the Connelly Theater Upstairs.

Clockwise from left: Tasha Lawrence, Uly Schlesinger, David Cromer, Calvin Leon Smith, and Lily McInerny in Ruby Thomas’s The Animal Kingdom, directed by Jack Serio, at the Connelly Theater Upstairs.
(© Emilio Madrid)

There’s a claustrophobic feel to the room where a family tries to figure out why one of its members attempted to take his own life. With a green carpet and a one-way mirror, Wilson Chin’s set for Ruby Thomas’s The Animal Kingdom makes us feel like we’re about to study the behavior of some curious creatures.

In a way, the setup pokes fun at our voyeuristic impulse to look in on other people’s problems, but as the mirror reflects our faces back at us, we wonder if we’re a part of the exhibit too. This is one of the complex layers that Thomas and director Jack Serio have baked into an intimate examination of group therapy and family dynamics, now running at the Connelly Theater’s 50-seat black box.

We meet troubled bird-lover Sam and his therapist, Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith), as they await the arrival of Sam’s family: stern, silent father Tim (David Cromer), logorrheic mother Rita (Tasha Lawrence), and pissed-off sister Sofia (Lily McInerny). They’ve been invited to be a part of Sam’s therapy as he recovers from a suicide attempt, but his parents, now divorced, are not ready for constructive dialogue. Over the course of six sessions (Stacey Derosier’s lighting and Christopher Darbassie indicate each one), the family begins to talk about long-standing traumas as well as inherited mental-health disorders that till now have been kept well-hidden for one reason or another. Whether all the biting and gnashing of teeth will benefit Sam, however, remains to be seen.

Even as the play digs into the family’s past, its revelations at times seem to border on the simplistic. Can Tim’s aloofness from his son be explained merely by his own distant, love-deprived relationship with his father? And is Rita’s inherited predisposition to depression the main cause for Sam’s tendency to self-harm? As important as each revelation is, we get the feeling that there’s more behind Sam’s complicated psychology than can be fathomed after just a few short therapy sessions with a reticent family.

Lily McInerny as Sofia in Ruby Thomas’s The Animal Kingdom, directed by Jack Serio, at the Connelly Theater Upstairs.
(© Emilio Madrid)

That’s one of the reasons I found myself wishing that this play delved deeper with perhaps another act; at 80 minutes, the show comes to an end just as we feel we’re scratching the surface of the lies, half-truths, and secrets. The other reason I wanted more is the stellar cast. As the withdrawn father, Cromer (director of Prayer for the French Republic) stares ahead like a Sphinx and captures the quiet explosiveness of a man who knows his parenting skills are being put under a microscope. Lawrence (wearing attention-getting reds by Ricky Reynoso) gives a hilariously frustrating performance as a mother who constantly fills in pauses in conversations to compensate for the silence of her cheating ex-husband.

Especially good is McInerny, who shows us Sofia’s tendency to disappear in plain sight until she blows up at her brother for the selfishness of his behavior. Smith effortlessly tames the mayhem of this menagerie as the calm-voiced Daniel, who presides over the scene with an air of patience and wisdom. The show’s star though is Schlesinger, whose anguished Sam — distraught and adrift, but in love with nature and yearning for purpose — comes to life in a gut-punch of a performance.

In the end, of course, these are people, not wild animals, we’ve been observing, no matter that Sam in all seriousness says, “We’re bonobos in our family.” We have only to look across the way into the mirror to see that these folks, with their hidden pain and family secrets, look a lot like us.

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The Animal Kingdom

Closed: February 17, 2024