The convening of people who may not have anything more in common with one another than shared DNA at holiday time can result in more misery than merriment for all involved. A funeral, too, can provide a similar arena for conflict—with the added pitch of grief heightening everyone’s emotions. So, it’s fitting that Studio Theatre has chosen the end of the year to produce the regional premiere of Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure.
Fresh off its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, Curve of Departure takes its title from the Sharon Olds’ poem, “First Thanksgiving,” which explores the emotions and memories triggered in a mother’s mind during her daughter’s first visit home from college. Bonds’ writing is paired here with Mike Donahue’s directing, and not for the first time—among their past collaborations is the world premiere of The Wolfe Twins in 2014, also at Studio.
We begin, and spend most of our time, in a hotel room in Santa Fe, NM. Lauren Helpern’s scenic design convincingly captures the familiar, sometimes comforting and sometimes soul-crushing, sameness of a generic hotel room while still injecting some bright Southwestern pops of color. The room has been booked by Linda (Ora Jones) for herself and her ex-father-in-law, Rudy (Peter Van Wagner). They’re in town for the funeral for Cyrus, Rudy’s son and Linda’s one-time husband, who ran out on her and their son, Felix (Justin Weaks), when Felix was 12 years old to start a new family. Felix is also on his way from LA, along with his from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend of a year and a half, Jackson (Sebastian Arboleda).
The four are sharing one hotel room because Felix and Jackson are strapped for cash. Rudy and Linda have their own issues, as he’s losing his memory and control of his bowels while Linda struggles to care for him—and even contemplates an early retirement from the teaching job she loves to be with him full time.
Van Wagner (who you may recognize from TV’s Boardwalk Empire) plays the stereotypical New York Jew with gusto, but also infuses his performance with moments of touching regard for the woman who has stuck by him, even when his own son has not. Jones is the rock of the family, her calm steadiness and maternal concern infusing every interaction, even when she’s not on stage (it’s fitting that sheis left alone to accomplish the play’s one set change).
Curve of Departure
closes January 7, 2018
Details and tickets
Felix and Jackson have problems of their own. Fe (as his mother and grandfather call him) works long hours and supports Jackson, who works part-time at a coffee shop. They’ve taken emergency custody of Jackson’s niece, Yara, because her mother is a drug addict with an abusive boyfriend. They’re debating adopting Yara, which is throwing a wrench into the works of their relationship. Weaks embodies the nearly-manic energy of a young man who’s caught in the middle of everything, yet isn’t blameless or perfect himself. Arboleda deftly walks the tightrope of the outsider who’s thrust into an awkward family situation, but also sees a better—if still dysfunctional—version of a family that he’s never known.
Bonds’ dialog is naturalistic and real, but some of the play’s other elements try too hard to hit us over the head with the themes she’s addressing. For example, a true crime TV show that’s on during the top of the show promises that secrets will be revealed (!), while Rudy at one point shouts “It’s all coming out!” while ostensibly talking about a bout of diarrhea. Donahue expertly moves the four actors around a cramped hotel room, finding convincing ways to get different configurations of characters alone together in the shared space. It is distracting, however, that we’re expected to believe that, regardless of how old or senile Rudy is, he would be able to sleep through the full-volume conversations and arguments happening two feet away.
Still, the actors’ lived-in performances and emotional authenticity are enough to transcend some of the script’s shortcomings. For instance, Linda’s heartfelt speech near the end is so well-acted that the audience forgets that there’s never once been any indication of the need for the speech. As with any holiday get-together, Curve of Departure isn’t perfect—but there are characters worth visiting with when you’re in town.
Curve of Departure by Rachel Bonds. Directed by Mike Donahue. Cast: Ora Jones, Justin Weaks, Peter Van Wagner, and Sebastian Arboleda. Assistant Director: Manna-symone Middlebrooks. Scenic designer: Lauren Helpern. Costume designer: Kathleen Geldard. Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski. Sound designer: Roc Lee. Production stage manager: Allie Roy. Assistant stage manager: Corinne Williams. Dramaturg: Adrien-alice Hansel. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by John Bavoso.