Back in the day in the French Quarter of Louisiana, there was a custom among the upper crust: when a boy reached the age of fourteen or so, he moved from the family manse to an outbuilding, where a muscular servant would oversee him until he was deemed fit to return to civilized company. Here in the rest of the country, we have a modified version of that custom. It’s called summer camp.
Another Way Home is about summer camp.
Put more specifically, Anna Ziegler’s play is about Joey Nadelman (Chris Stinson), a boy so irritating he would give St. Mother Theresa St. Vitus Dance. And about his parents, Lillian (Naomi Jacobson) and Phillip (Rich Foucheux), who love and hate each other in ways most of us would recognize. And about coming to grips, within the artificial confines of a boys’ camp in Maine, with the enormity and indifference of the Universe, which is the unacknowledged background noise in each one of our lives.
And also: about the unbelievable greatness of Taylor Swift.
See, the thing is that Ziegler frames this as though it was your standard sitcom setup, of the Neil Simon school — Lillian and Phillip, the bickering parents; Joey, the rebellious teenage son, sister Nora (Shayna Blass) the know-it-all sister, who will all reconcile in the end. But that’s not what’s going on at all.
Lillian and Phillip are not a latter-day version of the Bickersons. They are two people structurally designed to make each other miserable. Phillip is a workaholic who has chosen a profession and a position for which workaholism is a prerequisite (“My partners are all working this weekend,” he worries), and is ferociously offended when Lillian suggests he should spend more time with his family. Lillian has turned her back on her own talents in favor of self-righteousness and martyrdom. Together, they are hammer and tongs, Hatfield and McCoy, Punch and Judgie.
And Joey is not a sullen teenage rebel. He is a young man drenched in self-loathing, at war with the world as a way of being at war with himself. He is not one of the angsty teenagers Kurt Cobain sang about; he is Kurt Cobain himself, minus the charisma. So when he goes missing for hours after his exasperated father directs a tirade at him, the operating assumption is not that he’s off pouting. but something far worse.
I must say that I know no other actor who can better portray such an unhappy young man than Chris Stinson. His tortured, mobile face looks like it is prepared to jump off his body. You can almost smell the fear and agony on him. Stinson is an experienced actor who can play a wide range of characters, but with someone like this he is like a lion on a water buffalo.
He is matched, of course, with two of the area’s best actors — Foucheux and Jacobson. Ziegler has them address the audience with their dueling narratives almost constantly, and their reactions to each other carries almost as much of the narrative as their words do. Lesser actors could probably pull this off but the result wouldn’t be nearly as comic, or as rich, as it is with these two experts.
Another Way Home
closes July 17, 2016
Details and tickets
There are two other characters — Nora, the hyper-accomplished, Taylor Swift-worshipping kid sister, and Mike (Thony Mena), a camp counselor with aspirations to become an actor. Mena is fine and Blass is excellent, but the two characters, upon reflection, appear to be more plot devices than authentic outgrowths of the story. Nora appears to exist primarily to show that Lillian’s anxiety about the missing Joey is not merely a product of Lillian’s neurosis, and Mike’s principal purpose seems to be to show Joey how lucky he is. Having Lillian make the first point through dialogue would have been more satisfying, and the second point doesn’t need to be made at all.
Ziegler doesn’t fully integrate them into the plot; that job belongs to the actors and especially director Shirley Serotsky, who elicits performances which highlight the play’s strong points and work around its weak points. Serotsky, who did a good job steering Theater J through the period between Ari Roth’s departure and Adam Immerwahr’s arrival as Artistic Director, has quietly become one of the area’s better directors.
Another Way Home by Anna Ziegler . directed by Shirley Serotsky, assisted by Chelsea Thaler. Featuring Shayna Blass, Rick Foucheux, Naomi Jacobson, Thony Mena and Chris Stinson. Scenic design, Paige Hathaway . Lighting design, Harold F. Burgess II . Costume design, Debra Kim Sivigny . Sound design, Matthew Nielson . Properties design, Kevin Laughon . Stage manager, Karen Currie. Assistant Stage Managers, Jessica Soriano and Colleen Marie Siler. Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.