The “strange country” of Anne Adams’s new play by that title is not the small-town Texas where it takes place. It’s the gnarled country of the minds and hearts of its three damaged, all-too-real protagonists.
Adams’s first play shows that she clearly knows her way around the territory’s dark alleys lined with addicts, enablers, broken families, and the mentally ill. Director Jay Stull, demonstrating the same fine-grained skill he did with The Amoralists’ Utility, shapes an excellent cast into a realistic portrait quivering with Expressionistic intensity.
Tough-talking, hyperactive Tiffany (Vanessa Vaché, as compelling as she was in Utility), storms into her brother Darryl’s (Sidney Williams) apartment to roust him into presentability for their parents’ recommitment ceremony, with Jamie (Bethany Geraghty), her girlfriend of a year, in tow. Thus the script puts a modern spin on ancient and universal feelings, and updates the classic theatrical trope of a family gathering touching off a decisive clash.
We already know something about Darryl; as we enter the theater, he’s sleeping in his underwear on a recliner in his messy, beer-can-strewn living room, fridge door open in the adjoining kitchen, a painting on the wall behind him severely askew. When Tiffany arrives it’s in opposition – she’s a dynamo of energy and subsumed anger. We also know sister and brother don’t see each other much, as he’s never met Jamie before. Meanwhile Jamie seems shy and hesitant, and we don’t know right away what to make of her.
The production teems with small revelatory moments. Darryl very much doesn’t want to go to the family gathering, for reasons that become fairly clear, and when his air of dry knowingness pushes Tiffany’s buttons she erupts: “Do you have any idea what I’ve been up against this week? Do you realize what I’ve put my girl through? You’re killing me, dude.” Jamie silently takes her hand and comforts her by massaging her palm.
It’s a moment both touching and humorous. However resentful Jamie may be of being dragged into the family drama, there’s a warm affection between the two. Yet as Jamie admits to Darryl after she and Tiffany have had a big offstage fight, when the pair first met “it was like looking your poison in the face.” Is any kind of redemption possible when that’s how love starts?
Eventually laid-back Darryl fights back against his domineering sister. “All the time you use up trying to control everything – Why can’t you just let shit be?” But that’s just what Tiffany’s unable to do, it’s not in her nature. Darryl’s apparent calm is hard-won, we learn, for his alcoholism is by way of self-medication for mental illness. Jamie’s quietness, in turn, masks a very troubled history that her relationship with Tiffany hasn’t resolved – and that Darryl’s drinking threatens to bring roaring back.
Strange Country belongs to a subcategory of family-gathering dramas in which we never actually witness the family gathering. We don’t meet the mother, except at the other end of her persistent phone calls; Tiffany’s mention of needing to buy her a wig suggests cancer, but there’s no other mention of ill health. The father seems prone to violence, but we’re not sure why; the precise nature of his violent conflict with Darryl remains shrouded. And those uncertainties are a strength, not a weakness, of the play. Much is revealed, much happens, and the story holds several surprises in store as these three memorable characters reveal more and more, bit by bit, of their troubled souls.
One good definition of a successful drama is a story that acutely distills universal realities. Strange Country gives us an uncommon triple portrait of common anguish, straight from the strange country of the human condition. It runs through August 13 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway at White St., in a production by New Light Theater Project. Tickets are available online or at 800-838-3006.