Two Sons Take Their Mother to Task in Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia
Stockard Channing reprises her role as a '60s counterculture matriarch in need of atonement.
When someone publishes a memoir, any fallout usually comes because the author has revealed too much about the people in his or her life. That's not the case with the one written by Kristin Miller (played by Stockard Channing), the absentee mother in Alexi Kaye Campbell's 2009 drama Apologia, now running at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Channing gives a powerful performance as Kristin, who has inflicted mental agony on her sons in the past because she left them out of her life. Unfortunately, Apologia, a play about the past that feels stuck there, doesn't reveal enough of its characters' lives for us to be invested in their filial dysfunction.
American-born Kristin lives alone in the English countryside in a book-filled cottage (set design by Dane Laffrey) decorated with modernist paintings and dusty mementoes of her protest days (a photo of Karl Marx is now relegated to the bathroom). It's her birthday, and she's trying to make dinner, but the oven won't get hot enough to bake the chicken. Her English-born banker son, Peter (Hugh Dancy), has just arrived with his religious American girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon), who gives a Liberian helmet mask to Kristin as a birthday gift. Kristin's longtime counterculture friend Hugh (John Tillinger) arrives and suggests they ditch the chicken and order out while they wait for her other son, the estranged, troubled Simon, whose soap-actress girlfriend, Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), has also just arrived for the casual dinner wearing a very expensive gown (costume design by Anita Yavich).
Talk soon turns to the memoir that Kristin recently published. Simon, we learn through Claire, just finished reading the book that morning, and the fact that Kristin has mentioned absolutely nothing about her sons in the book, as though they were never a part of her life, has pushed him over the edge. After the others have gone to bed, Simon (also played by Dancy) arrives in the middle of the night, disheveled and bleeding, and for the first time Kristin cares for her son by tending to his wound. "I've been looking forward to the day this thing would come in handy," she says as she opens the first-aid kit. But it's too little, too late. As she nurses him, he tells her a story that forces her to confront her failure as a mother.
Like blowing on a quiet ember, director Daniel Aukin tries to ignite Kaye Campbell's sometimes stilted dialogue with a few intense, shouty moments, but the action never really gets above a smolder. Much of the terrain Kaye Campbell crosses is familiar to dysfunctional-family dramas: Guards are let down and emotional scabs are picked as wine gets poured and people get loose-lipped (we can see that fancy dress getting ruined a mile away).
Despite the tropes, Channing, who played Kristin in the West End production last year, captures the spotlight throughout as the conflicted mother who makes her defense — her apologia — of her absence from her sons' lives with convenient excuses about a vengeful husband who took them away. But we and everyone else know she never tried all that hard to get them back. Dancy plays off that conflict well as the emotionally shattered, near-catatonic Simon in a surreal scene filled with disturbing shadows created by Bradley King's precise lighting design. And Monahon effectively plays the platitude-spouting, conflict-averse Trudi with ear-grating monotony, like a magpie that can't bear a moment of silence.
It's much less obvious what makes the others tick. Dancy, as Peter, and Echikunwoke kick the embers of their characters' limited backstories without raising the temperature. Tillinger, fortunately, offers humorous moments with Hugh's gay-inflected sassiness. Overall, though, despite little twists and diversions in the story, we feel as though we've witnessed someone else's disturbing yet not-so-revelatory dream.
In the end, Apologia has some tasty morsels to offer about the need to forgive ourselves rather than coming up with arguments to justify our shortcomings, but like Kristin's oven, the play never gets warm enough to cook up a satisfying meal.