Whose Family Values!

Ted Rodenborn, Herb Rubens, Gammy Singer, GlynisBell, and Martha Libman in Whose Family Values!(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Ted Rodenborn, Herb Rubens, Gammy Singer, Glynis
Bell, and Martha Libman in Whose Family Values!
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)

Whose Family Values! has got a number of problems, beginning with the title, an interrogative fragment that should properly end with a question mark. In choosing instead to end the phrase with an exclamation point and to underline that demanding “whose,” author Richard Abrons highlights not the title’s curiosity but its adamancy; the emphasis is on stridency rather than subtlety.

Unfortunately, this applies to the play itself. But before we blame Abrons for being too heavy-handed in his treatment of political subjects, we should pause to thank him for doing so in the first place. Given the extraordinary state of the world today, the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which granted American women the right to choose to have an abortion, is far from the forefront of our collective consciousness. Not so for the Boyds, the white, middle-class suburban family that Abrons has created for Family Values; they don’t all agree on the abortion issue, but it’s certainly on their minds.

Charles Boyd (Herbert Rubens) is the patriarch of the family, a sharp-tongued stock broker and an ardent pro-lifer. He and his wife, Pat (Glynis Bell), along with their uptight son, Steven (Kevin Rolston), spend their weekends protesting outside the Planned Parenthood clinic that has recently opened a few blocks from their Clayton, Missouri home. Steven’s fiancée, Mary Slade (Jennifer Laine), is not as strident in her pro-life position. But the real dissenter within the group is Steven’s older brother, Bruce (Chris Hutchison), who has bucked the family line in any number of ways: He’s moved to California, he’s got an African-American girlfriend, and he’s pro-choice. He even has the gall to refer to the clinic, so detested by the rest of his family, as a “reproductive health center” instead of an “abortion mill.”

On this particular weekend, the Boyds are foregoing their usual protest activities. Everyone has promised to put politics aside because Steven and Mary are to be married on Sunday, for which occasion Bruce has come home from Santa Monica for the first time in years. But, before the festivities begin, Abrons unleashes a dramatic event that sends the Boyds reeling and forces a series of confrontations that are deeply political and painfully personal.

The problem is that, for most of the proceedings, Abrons’s focuses on the stridency of the arguments. The Boyd family has an interesting background and dynamics, but too often we’re given it all via sudden sociopolitical interjections alternating with clumsy exposition disguised as offhand remarks. “Remember the heyday of Operation Rescue,” says Charles, out of nowhere, to his wife. “When we were led by Randall Terry?” This is dialogue that sounds like an encyclopedia entry. Bruce, marveling that he’s so much more progressive than the rest of his family, jokes that, when he was born, “the stork turned right when he should have turned left.” That’s a lame joke, especially coming from a twenty- or thirty-something California hipster.

Chris Hutchison and Rosalyn Colemanin Whose Family Values!(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Chris Hutchison and Rosalyn Coleman
in Whose Family Values!
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)

Thankfully, the efforts of a mostly first-rate cast and the direction of Philip Rose go a long way toward making these characters seem to be a fully realized family. Rolston’s Steven is stiff and wooden but appropriately so, especially in contrast to Hutchison’s affable, “touchy-feely” Bruce. Particularly winning are Laine’s understated, thoughtful Mary and Rubens’s Charles. He’s got the central role and also the most unforgiving — a loudmouthed evangelical who is dead-set in his convictions — but Rubens finds little ways to make Charles real, interesting, and even sympathetic. This is notably true in the final scene when Charles comes face to face with Bruce’s girlfriend, Doreen, charmingly played by Rosalyn Coleman. Bruce and Doreen and Charlie and Pat all try to protect each other from each other as Abrons dances the conversation back and forth between race and abortion.

The playwright is at his best when tackling issues of race, which he does in a number of interesting ways. (One of the recurring themes of the play is the fate of the Andersons, an African-American family that lived next door years ago but were forced out by Charlie and other local bigots; interestingly, Philip Rose was the producer of A Raisin in the Sun, about a similarly persecuted family.) A highlight is the almost surreal moment when Bruce and the family’s cook, Cecelia (the affable Gammy L. Singer), suddenly drop into a playful massa’-slave routine, apparently a longstanding in-joke between them. Needless to say, it makes the rest of the Boyd family uncomfortable — not to mention the audience — by bringing to the fore the unspoken tensions of a world whereing lower-middle-class blacks smilingly serve wealthy whites their pancakes.

It’s a moment of very smart playwriting, in which an interesting and unexpected bit of human interaction tells us an enormous amount about the characters and those around them. As Whose Family Values! rehashes arguments for and against abortion, there isn’t enough of the kind of interaction that could deeply engage us with these people who are arguing so much.

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