Sonya Schneider’s new play, Royal Blood, often feels like it’s competing to cover as many squares on its Dysfunctional Family Bingo card as possible. There’s a mentally disabled character, a racist old coot, a teen girl who’s — gasp — been hiding her sexual activity from her mother, a suicide, a gay man shunned by his parents and a near-constant sense of friction among the five characters. Schneider’s script is often fantastic with the specifics, spinning sharp dialogue and teasing out interesting character details, but broadly, it’s a bit of a cliché carousel, piling dysfunction on top of dysfunction until it peters out in faux-resolution.
The world premiere production at West of Lenin, directed by Laurel Pilar Garcia and staged on Jennifer Zeyl’s almost-Lynchian suburban backyard set, is nonetheless frequently marvelous thanks to Garcia’s steady direction and an impressive cast.
Amy Love is presented with a difficult role as show lynchpin Deborah Roth, a mentally disabled woman who lives with her dad (Todd Jefferson Moore) and doesn’t know that her brother, Leo, has recently killed himself. Deb dresses in her late mother’s Jackie Kennedy-inspired wardrobe, constantly watches classic movies and generally lives in an oblivious state.
Love’s performance is refreshingly free of tics or gimmicks and the character’s humanity always comes before her illness. This is a heightened, decidedly theatrical turn, but it feels motivated by Deb’s love of Hollywood glamor. She’s determined to put on the face of normality; she just has no idea what that actually looks like.
The rest of the characters tend to fall into slightly more stock roles, but the actors don’t feel constrained by the familiarity. Mari Nelson is all aloof exasperation until a raw nerve eventually forces its way out in her turn as Deb’s sister Dorothy, a journalist who returns home in the midst of tragedy and can’t believe Deb is still unaware.
Moore’s performance as irascible father Clifford enlivens every one of his predictably offensive proclamations, and he does an admirable job betraying the man’s deep pain without turning him into a lovable, harmless old codger.
Nicole Merat is stuck with some tin-eared “teen speak” as Dorothy’s daughter Cassiopeia, but she’s convincing as a bright, compassionate young woman, particularly in her interactions with Deb. David Hsieh as Leo’s ex Adam movingly personifies all of the grief that the rest of the characters have either sublimated or ignored.
The play’s title refers to the Roth family’s distant relation to Princess Diana, and the way they all uses that connection to justify their actions or prop up their self-worth. Schneider doesn’t belabor the point, but it also feels a little undercooked, not carrying enough thematic force to really illuminate the characters.
Despite the text’s shortcomings, Onward Ho! Productions’ staging of Royal Blood is engrossing whenever Love is onstage and ably supported by the rest of the ensemble. The show runs through April 4 at West of Lenin in Fremont. Tickets are available for purchase online.Powered by Sidelines