Sunday, July 28, 2013

Family Dysfunction Revisited

S. Ann Johnson's play Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy packs an emotional wallop.  Produced by the Theatrical Mining Company at Notre Dame's Copeland theater, the drama depicts the plight of a dysfunctional East Baltimore family through the eyes of Mabelle, a member of the family's middle generation.  Asked to deliver the eulogy for the grandfather she adored, Mabelle slowly learns the reality of her grandfather's violent, alcoholic past and the damage he inflcited on the family before she was born.  As she recognzies the shadow side of her venerated grandfather, she comes to terms with her own bourgeoning enslavement to a charming but irresponsible boyfriend who is following the same path of substance abuse, anger, and the neglect of basic duties toward family and work.  The play delicately raises the issue of a dangerous pattern in the African-American community, whereby woman and children find themselves abandoned by their husbands and fathers.  It focuses on the particular types of damage inflicted by alcoholism in these scenarios of neglect and abandonment.

The play's most powerful scenes arise when the characters storm into confontations over blame and recrimination for the plight of the family.  Moments of humor enliven the predominantly grim tale of discovering abuse through probing other's narratives, once dismissed as exaggeration. 

Not everything works in the structure of the play.  The lead character's frequent addresses to the audience are too often a statementof the obvious; a more poetic subtext remains to be unearthed.  Like many plays which highlight narratives of the past, the play stumbles at times on the "Do you remember when?" moment.  But these are minor flaws in a play which is often gripping in its emotional intensity and admirable in its effort to balance outrage and fear with acceptance of human weakness.

The directors Shelby and Tyrone Chapman provide vivid direction to the play, which could easily have become a static memory play.  Especially convincing are the scenes of verbal and physical confontation, not so easily staged in the tiny confines of the Copley stage.  Standout performances are given byKhris Burrell as  the mercurial Granddaddy and April Johnson as his ebullient wife, Queen.  They and the rest of the cast effectively communicate the pathos of the piece, while still communicating the joy of certain family celebrations. 

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