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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 5.14.2009

 

The Storm Inside

Behind the curtains in Suicide Weather

by Suzi Steffen

Animals trapped together in a cage couldn’t inflict more intricate wounds than does the mother in Jeff Whitty’s Suicide Weather, which closes out a mixed season at the Lord Leebrick Theater. The script’s potent mixture of humor and pain investigates the nature of family, depression and what happens when maintaining appearances comes at a prohibitive cost.

Norman (Ken Hof) comforts Beverly (Rebecca Nachison). Photo by Gretchen Drew

Suicide Weather had a short production at NYU and a reading in Manhattan several years ago before extensive revisions by Whitty, but it’s still recognizable as an excavation of Whitty’s young life and his love for the literature of the theater. This play owes a debt to Tennessee Williams but adds 21st century consciousness as well.

As Beverly Robbins, the frustrated wife of a small-town mayor (Ken Hof), Rebecca Nachison is the clear star of the show. Beverly’s inability to deal with reality leaves her depressed daughter, who seems to have suffered a psychotic break after finding her suicidal boyfriend’s body, in unrelenting limbo. Deenie (Kim Bates) can’t leave the house and plays, over and over, a CD of birdcalls. She asks a lot of her long-suffering younger brother Maxwell (Mark Mullaney), a senior in high school whose deepest desire is to be a math teacher, and of her loving but distant father. 

The plot provides an almost textbook progression of events as Deenie, prodded unmercifully by her mother, briefly exits the house, with consequences that set up post-intermission developments. 

Whitty, who grew up in Coos Bay and is a UO alum, has seen massive success with his book for Avenue Q, and his Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler ran to sellout crowds at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year. He’s made it big, but the journey can’t have been all roses. Maxwell’s trajectory of escape and his second-act “revelation” (which can’t possibly be a surprise) reflect a kind of post-Glass Menagerie Tom as well as Whitty’s move to The City (that is, N.Y). And more than the shadow of Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield hangs over Beverly and her longing for a different life, a life where she’s important, creative, loved — without her imperfect children and husband.

The second act, with Nachison teetering on June Cleaver heels and sporting a dress whose colors might lay poor June out cold, sharpens its knives. Whitty’s dialogue increases in wit as the situation grows more absurdly painful. Beverly has no mercy for either of her children, and her throwaway comments about Maxwell’s life show how very little she understands the world into which she’s been thrust by her children. She wants to keep up appearances; she wants to control the narrative of their lives. But she can’t gather her tattered dignity when her daughter and son push back against her plans, when her carefully and diligently constructed illusions (who’s the mentally ill one here, we start to wonder) melt back into an emotional maelstrom.

Norman chases storms, just in case that’s not obvious from the way he persists with Beverly, and Whitty self-consciously uses the pathetic fallacy — in this case, where the weather reflects human emotions — with a massive wind- and rainstorm. Norman even hollers Lear’s storm-wracked words into the gale, but they serve as an absurdist sideline to the enmeshed family inside the house. Who will escape the storm outside and the storm inside?

Much of the action after intermission redeems the lengthy set-up; I was surprised to find that it was just after 10:30 when the play ended. Whitty doesn’t leave details to chance. He weaves the family’s last name, their cuckoo clock, the hilariously bad “gift” Beverly buys to welcome a heavily medicated Deenie home and more into an undercurrent that both reflects and comments on birds as metaphors. 

Props to director Craig Willis for taking on a complex if slightly undercooked script and to the lightly ironic costume designs of Barbara Embree. 

Mullaney plays a very twitchy Maxwell. The actor, with his malleable, rubbery features, uncannily resembles Alan Ruck, who played Ferris Bueller’s best friend in the 1986 movie. Hof skillfully makes Norman both sympathetic and maddening, and Bates provides the untreated Deenie with a measure of mad restraint. 

But the play belongs to Nachison, who gleefully takes on a role that would be poignant if Beverly’s emotional carnage weren’t so ugly. Never turn your back on a human hurricane, no matter how quiescent it seems; entire neighborhood may be destroyed.

Suicide Weather runs through May 31 at the Leebrick. Tix at www.lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.