Thursday, January 28, 2016

Organ Donation: The Comedy

Everyman Theatre's production of Michael Hollinger's Under the Skin smoothly presents a comic melodrama about an unlikely subject: organ donation.  This is only the second production of Hollinger's play (it premiered last year at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre) and confirms Hollinger's status as an emerging playwright to be taken seriously.  Energetically directed by Vincent Lancisi, the sleek production brings out the humor as well as the pathos of a dysfunctional family suddenly brought together by a health crisis.

The crisis is middle-aged Lou's collapsing kidneys.  Needing a transplant, he turns to his estranged daughter Raina, torn between filial duty and resentment of her father's longstanding abandonment of her.  As the plot thickens, Raina meets the mistress of her father, Marlene, and the son from the adulterous affair, Jarrell.  The many references to American pop culture keep the audience laughing as the play's many plot twists and revelations of family secrets lead the play to a dramatic if somewhat strained conclusion.

The cast works smoothly as an ensemble.  Megan Anderson (Raina), Mitchell Herbert (Lou), Alice Gatling (Marlene), and Keith Royal Smith (Jarrell) bring a convincing emotional anguish to their roles.  The omnipresent humor and improbable plot reversals do not overwhelm the internal conflict within each of the characters.  The set design of Brandon McNell and the lighting design of Jay Herzog place the characters within the steely, antiseptic, analytic world of the medical establishment. The sterile material environment is an effective counterpoint to the volcanic emotions of the characters as they confront each other's deceptions and their own fears.

As entertaining as the play is, it has the feel of a dramatic work which has not quite matured.  With its cascading pop references, the script often has the sound of a television situation comedy.  There is further work required to reveal the characters and the conflict in depth. The ending is also problematic.  The lights come up on the audience as Raina reminds us that we all part of one big family and that we should all be willing to donate organs, even to strangers.  I expected the ushers to confront us with organ donation cards as we left the theater.  This public service announcement may have been well-intentioned but it is a shrill piece of agitprop which only weakens the play as a dramatic exercise.


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