Review: Munich Medea: Happy Family, a Drama About Finding Family in Tough Circumstances

WP Theater and PlayCo mount Corinne Jaber’s debut play.

Heather Raffo plays Alice in Corinne Jaber’s Munich Medea: Happy Family, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, at WP Theater.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

“Happy family. A world of sleep and protection and comfort,” someone explains. Unfortunately for the two girls at the center of Munich Medea: Happy Family, onstage now at WP Theater, protection and comfort are in short supply. The drama (a co-production with PlayCo) by first-time playwright Corinne Jaber takes a sadly familiar tale of abuse by an older man and makes it startlingly specific. Skillfully drawn characters break the fourth wall to persuade, question, and even indict the audience in the story.

Alice (Heather Raffo) is a young girl whose Syrian-German family has returned to Germany after living for years in Canada. Though she puts on a tough demeanor, she carries feelings of displacement. She attempts to reintegrate into German culture by way of her best friend Caroline (Crystal Finn) and her family, joining them for meals and spending a lot of time in the theater with Caroline’s actor Father (Kurt Rhoads). Soon the Father is sexually abusing her under the guise of “protecting” her. This is a story both women and men know too well, so it’s a testament to the characters’ richness and specificity that it doesn’t feel rote or fatigued.

The characters in Munich Medea: Happy Family address the audience directly in a series of monologues, in honor of the Greek tragedies referenced throughout. Their stories rarely contradict each other but instead reveal the contradictions within themselves: how Caroline blames her mother for ignoring her husband’s abuses, but also chooses to stay silent when she finds out about Alice and her dad; how Alice can reject her family’s concern while seeking protection from the Father; how the Father can claim he’s the only one protecting Alice while throwing her into situations she is far too young to navigate, all while showboating his acting talent. The monologues are sharp, but the characters are so well-defined that it’s hard not to imagine what other revelations might come about if they interacted directly with each other.

Crystal Finn plays Caroline in Corinne Jaber’s Munich Medea: Happy Family, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, at WP Theater.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

The moments of levity and humor are sarcastic, ironic, and very German, so for an American audience, this is not a laugh-out-loud evening of theater. Still, the play doesn’t become too bleak, as it is balanced out by details about the girls’ friendship. Descriptions of the abuse are matter-of-fact and brief.

The cast is uniformly strong. Under a shield of bravado, Raffo’s Alice conveys a burning need for understanding – a burning that Father willfully interprets as desire. Finn as Caroline is more buttoned-up, having learned to subdue her emotions to maintain family harmony. But she can’t keep all her feelings stuffed down, especially as it is revealed that she too has suffered abuse. Rhoads, who often makes direct eye contact with the audience, gives an unsettling performance as the Father. With a sly grin he perverts otherwise innocuous lines of dialogue and suggests that the audience is just as turned on as he is. According to him, we would do the same thing he did in his situation, or at least we would if we weren’t so bourgeois.

Rhoads’s performance is aided by Kristen Robinson’s set, a two-story structure with the Father’s domain in on the second floor. He literally hovers over the two women as his actions hover over their lives. The backing soundtracks (by Daniela Hart and UptownWorks) were a bit muddled in the performance I attended, but it did not take away from the overall production. Lee Sunday Evans’s direction brings the three characters together and apart and provides enough action to fill the 75-minute play.

Crystal Finn, Heather Raffo, and Kurt Rhoads appear in Corinne Jaber’s Munich Medea: Happy Family, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, at WP Theater.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

With characters this engaging, it’s disappointing that Jaber can’t seem to find a way to land the ending. Part of this may be because the characters never break out of monologue. There’s a lovely late-play reveal that Caroline and Alice have formed their own “happy family” through the bond of shared adversity, but I longed to see that revelation play out through the two characters finally talking with each other. Jaber also chooses to end the play with an aged Father reciting lines from former acting roles, which didn’t resonate with other themes of the play.

Although the girls didn’t get the last word, Munich Medea: Happy Family’s story of women bound together by shared experiences is a promising first outing from Jaber.

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