It starts with a case of the kind of cyberbullying that’s become horrifically common in our schools: Part 1-Before (projected above the set).
Julia Campbell (Mia Matthews), an anxious, magazine-perfect blonde, has invited Connie and Alan Beckman (Denise Cormier and Bill Phillips) to her well appointed home in order to discuss an incident involving their high school sons. Much to her distress, husband Tate (Michael Frederic) is late to the meeting it’s clear he never planned to attend.
Michael Frederic, Mia Matthews, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Jolie Curtsinger
“They display guns like I display my grandmother’s Lalique. I feel like I’m in a Ronald Regan movie!” Connie rails. Alan warns his combative wife to tamp it down. She, in turn, admonishes him not to “evaporate and leave me to do it all.” Much to everyone’s surprise (both ours and the Beckmans) Julia apologizes for the deer, explaining it was her concession to gain control over the rest of the furnishings. Nor, she says, are they members of the NRA.
Tate arrives irritated. Also reluctantly present is Julia’s sister, Val (Jolie Curtsinger), convinced into thinking she might be useful as a mediator. Val has two sons of her own, ostensibly giving her perspective.
Kyle Campbell sent Matt Beckman a text reading: You’re next faggot, for which he’s received three days suspension from the elite school they attend. His parents allow that as a teenager he sometimes makes stupid choices, but dismiss the message as a “prank.” The Beckmans are convinced it’s a threat and want Kyle expelled. Arguments about responsible parenting are heated. “It’s a matter of perception,” Alan declares demonstratively losing his temper. “Your instincts override common sense and instincts keep us alive.” Though it goes by quickly, this is a truth worth examining.
Mia Matthews, Michael Frederic, Bill Phillips
In Part 2-During, Connie finds herself once again at the Campbells with the ubiquitous Val, this time tricked into being there. Suspension is over. The boys are back at school. Julia wants to smooth things over. Connie remains fearful and livid. Before Matt’s mom again exits, they learn by telephone that a tragedy has occurred. Part 3-After takes place two years later.
Playwright Michael McKeever (author of the excellent Daniel’s Husband) is no stranger to parts of this scenario living, one gathers, a stone’s throw from Parkland and the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nothing like having something happen in your backyard to compel attention and reflection. Characters are well written, if just a bit one note in order to show “sides.” Empathy resides with the Beckmans, yet collective suffering is given equal credence. To McKeever’s credit, the episode itself is specific enough not to feel cliché, aftermath as much a tsunami as its precursor.
Caveat: The scenario might be tighter and more compelling had McKeever found a way to eliminate Val.
Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Michael Frederic
In 2018, there were 82 school shooting incidents in the United States.
The production suffers from an imbalance in acting skills which, with so few characters, achieves increased importance. Denise Cormier and Bill Phillips (The Beckmans) are terrific. Character traits emerge persuasive from the get-go. Emotions erupt from somewhere other than the script. Phillips’ brief implosion and Cormier’s later moment of sympathy-against-the-odds are palpable. Tension is nuanced, sustained. Timing eloquent.
Mia Matthews convinces us of Julia’s obsessive approach to life and especially her son, vibrating with resentment and wrath when challenged. A passage of backstory effectively elicits understanding. The actress fares less well with mourning.
In, one presumes, an effort to portray lack of intimacy/deep feeling, Michael Frederic instead acts as if there’s nothing behind Tate’s reactions i.e. no thought. Dimensionality is sacrificed. A fine line to be sure.
In an admittedly thankless role, Jolie Curtsinger’s Val anticipates questions, one step ahead of dialogue, and applies too much visible technique.
Director Joe Brancato uses the stage well, providing small business and motivated moves. Timing is skilled.
Brian Prather’s living room Set is completely descriptive of its inhabitants: patrician classy, symmetrical, antiseptically clean and, except for a taxidermy deer head and three rifles resting in a wall recession (not a credibly locked case), completely impersonal.
Costumes by Gregory Gale are economically and politically apt, though Connie needn’t look quite so dour to prove a point.
Photos by John Quilty Photography
Opening: Mia Matthews, Jolie Curtsinger, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Michael Frederic
Penguin Rep Theatre and InProximity Theatre Company present
After by Michael McKeever
Joe Brancato- Director
Through April 14, 2019