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Theater Thu Apr 03 2014
Photo by Claire Demos.
Is blood thinner than water, rather than, as the proverb would have it, thicker? Gift Theatre's new play Thinner Than Water by Melissa Ross makes us ponder this question as water washes over the family members metaphorically as well as realistically.
It's hard enough for any family to be fully functional, for siblings and cousins to get along with their counterparts. Rich, poor; young, old; educated, street-smart; liberal, conservative, religious, secular. So many opportunities for family dissension. But the recipe for a hyper-dysfunctional family might start like this: Take one distant and unloving father and three mothers--and add one child from each.
As Thinner Than Water opens, the three half-siblings are arguing about who will handle details of their father's terminal illness. (They all refer to him as Martin, not Dad or any fond nickname.) Renee, the oldest (a strong performance by Lynda Newton) grudgingly acknowledges that, as usual, she will get stuck with most of the work. Renee seems to be the most put-together of the three: she's married with two children.
Cassie (short for Cassandra, played by Brittany Burch) is young and uncertain of her life's direction. She's just broken up with her upwardly mobile boyfriend, Henry (Jay Worthington) and his dog Gidget. Gary (Michael Patrick Thornton) lives in his mother's garage and sells graphic novels (aka comic books), but is in some ways the most stable of the three. He seeks some fulfillment by applying to be a Big Brother to a young boy. Angela (Darci Nalepa) protects her son in no uncertain terms and any mother will recognize Angela's fierce defense of her child's welfare. This particular thread of the play, while providing some funny and engaging scenes, may seem unnecessary but it would be a shame to lose Nalepa's angry mom rants. Their scenes also shed some light on Gary's personality.
Renee's marriage seems to be at risk. In act one, she and husband Mark (Paul D'Addario) argue about the impact of his potential transfer to California. In act two, they come to some agreement about their future as they sit in their living room surrounded by buckets and bowls catching the water from a leaking roof. Ironically, Mark seems to envy Renee's family closeness. He sees his own family at uncomfortable annual Christmas visits but he "compartmentalizes" them.
At the hospital, Renee waits for news and we meet Martin's girlfriend Gwen (Donna McGough in a nuanced performance). At first Gwen seems to be an airhead and nonstop chatterbox, but later shows depth and thoughtfulness.
Act two is about the aftermath of Martin's death, as his children try to come to grips with their own lives and their relationships with each other. In a fine scene outside the hospital (and under a shared umbrella), Renee and Gwen share cigarettes and bitterly funny reflections about life and men. Gwen recounts how she used to be "a terrible bitch...when I smoked and drank a lot and screwed around with married men. Then I quit all that and moved here" and met Martin and became a happy person.
The playwright creates a more or less happy ending for each of the siblings. The ensemble acting is excellent throughout the play. Smaller parts like D'Addario as Mark, and Gabriel Franken as Gary's bookstore buddy Benjy are played with humor and finesse.
Ross' tightly written script is a smart and sympathetic family story, originally produced by New York's LAByrinth Theater Company and included in the anthology New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2011. Her script benefits from John Gawlik's careful direction in the tiny Gift Theatre performance space. The setting designed by Joe Schermoly makes clever use of a few pieces of furniture, accessorized by rain streaming down the rear windows and occasional scenic projections created by Michael Stanfill.
Thinner Than Water (two-and-a-quarter hours with one intermission) runs through May 25 at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. (close to the Jefferson Park Blue Line station). Performances are at 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday and 2:30pm on Sunday. Tickets are $20-35 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-283-7071.