Edla Cusick’s Austin, directed by Ed Setrakian and currently at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, exemplifies the heart-breaking devolution of a family that could be strong and supportive – if only. Instead, the family’s dysfunction, blame-gaming and twisted love progress to an inevitable conclusion that everyone might have worked to detour, but no one was healthy enough to take the plunge and make the changes.
To examine how even those with means and a tony background cannot ameliorate their own muddle of neurotic impulses, Cusick blends humor with pathos and unleashes visceral, ugly and hateful emotions. The unwitting receptacle is the title character, Austin, beautifully portrayed by Thomas G. Waites. Save for the love of his provocative daughter, Dory, Austin is the Titanic (referenced in the play), without a rudder, knowingly steering itself straight for the iceberg because truly, there is no viable escape, and perhaps it might be easier for all, except…
We are introduced to Austin after meeting his wife Petra (the lovely Rochelle Bostrom) and daughter (the winning and capable Michaela Waites), whose strain in their relationship we divine is more than just generational. There is an edgy tug-of-war and circle of guilt and condemnation between them, primarily caused by their different perceptions of Austin. The lack of empathy between mother and daughter is prompted by issues not being answered by Dory’s psychologist, who Dory claims is coming on to her in obvious ways her mother refuses to acknowledge. Immediately we arrive at a sense of these characters’ weaknesses through Cusick’s clever writing, and swirling undertow continues throughout the play.
The strain between mother and daughter is echoed by the relationship between Austin and his wily, manipulative, deceitful brother Martin (James McCaffrey, particularly unlikable and slimy), who heaps coals of guilt on Austin for his addictions despite his own problems with alcohol (he seems to be never without a drink in his hand), and his inability to be authentic and loving with his brother. We learn from the backstory that Martin has been an enabler of Austin’s addiction, as has Petra. Rather than help Austin by seeking counseling to understand their own neurotic and unhealthy contributions to his sickness, they blindly and blithely use Austin to salve their own inner wounds and debilities.
Though Austin has returned from another rehab, this time with the most hope he’s had in years, Martin’s jibes and acerbity push Austin toward the edge of doom despite a strong emotional love bond he has formed with Andy (a fine performance by AJ Cedeno) during his latest rehab. Andy visits Austin at their Hell’s Kitchen family home where Austin is staying with Martin. We see the possibilities for a true love relationship between Andy and Austin that would nurture Austin and provide the comfort and health he craves. Andy is the fount of kindness who replenishes Austin’s soul. His encouragement in helping Austin put in a garden in the backyard promises that maybe this time there will be a sustained recovery, despite the continual carping and judgment poured on Austin by Petra and Martin.
However, Austin caves in under the weight of past recriminations and present deceptions and abuse by Martin and Petra. The playwright deftly unravels the mystery of why Martin and Petra undermine Austin. She develops the arc of conflict to its inevitable conclusion which reveals the light and the dark, the hope and the folly, the “what might be” as opposed to the “what will be.”
The performances are excellent in this ensemble piece. Thomas G. Waites particularly creates havoc with our emotions and empathy as he engages us with Austin’s recovery. Bostrom and McCaffrey appropriately provoke our annoyance with Petra and Martin for their characters’ dark arts in spinning Austin toward a scenario which they will most suffer from. Indeed, the actors reveal that Petra and Martin are in a much worse state of deception than Austin is. Their performances, the direction, and Cusick’s fine writing elicit our frustration; we want to shake them into the reality of seeing themselves so that they can clean up the trash-heaps in their own backyards while Austin tends his own thriving garden with Andy’s help.
The other elements of the production work sufficiently without under- or overwhelming, clearly drawing the themes. The spare set serves the staging and the dreamscape quality of Cusick’s writing; we are able to directly confront the visceral, raw drama and identify what the characters struggle with in their relationships and their souls but are incapable of resolving without tragedy.
In the aftermath, as the characters are left reeling in catastrophe, there is uncertainty. Have they learned and gained wisdom? Or will they continue to repeat and reap the destruction of their hurtful behaviors? Cusick’s theme resonates at the conclusion. Without the desire for inner emotional wellbeing and wholeness, there is no level of social class or material wellbeing that can substitute for love, care, and concern in our relationships with others.
Austin is being performed at The Lion Theatre until September 10th.