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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Review: Stranger than Reality TV: The Homecoming

Brian Dennehy as Max, Ian Lake as Joey, Cara Ricketts as Ruth,
Stephen Ouimette as Sam, Aaron Krohn as Lenny.
Photo by Celia Von Tiedemann
Directed by Jennifer Tarver

The Story: Family patriarch Max lives in perpetual struggle for supremacy with his two grown sons, Lenny and Joey and his brother Sam in a run-down part of London in the 1960’s. Their fragile but dysfunctional apple cart is upset by the arrival of Max’s eldest son, Teddy, and his wife Ruth, home after living in America for six years.

 “Pinteresque” is a phrase used to describe typical features of Harold Pinter’s plays; dramatic pauses, black comedy, an absurd story, repeated phrases that seem to mean more than they appear. A Pinter play is as much about what is not said as is spoken.

A Pinter play is not light fare; Max and his sons are not The Waltons, this is not your feel-good kind of story. Unless your own life looks better by comparison, you are not apt to exit this play feeling very good about the human condition.  Even The Grapes of Wrath – depressing as it is – leaves you with the life-affirming knowledge that the characters will soldier on, in pursuit of something better. With The Homecoming, you just hope you never run across people like these characters and that they never procreate.

This story is for those who like examining people’s unspoken motivations. It is a marvelous play to study; to delve into, pick apart its meanings, dissect characters, to examine themes. It is not a play one enjoys watching.

Not that the direction is not crisp or the acting sharp. Jennifer Tarver has a knack with the darkly humorous, there is no doubt about that. Aaron Krohn makes Lenny into a sociopath – menacing one moment, charming the next; Cara Ricketts is an enigmatic, shrewd Ruth; Stephen Ouimette’s Sam is a gentleman out of place among predators, both haunted by and reveling in secrets. As portrayed by Mike Shara, Teddy is strangely apart but still very much one of Max’s son’s, and Ian Lake turns Joey into an animalistic man-boy.  As their father Max, Brian Dennehy is at his best when quietly bullying, switching gears from intimidating to nostalgic as fast as Lenny changes from charming to snaky.  

But as good as the direction and performers are, it is not a play one can enjoy watching. The characters are cruel or at best aloof. The comedy is of the uncomfortable kind, the laughs generated by pitiless insults and emotional abuse, rather than any genuine mirth. It is a joyless story, the characters remorseless, the action callous.

The set (by designer Leslie Frankish) is just another clue to the bleakness of the characters’ existence. Dark, dingy wallpaper, a dirty front window, shabby and worn furniture; there are plenty of light fixtures, but only a few of them are turned on at any one time.  There is an empty, faded spot where a framed picture once had pride of place, representing the long-dead Jesse, Max’s wife. Whither went she, we are not told. But we are somehow glad she escaped this den of amoral iniquity one way or another.

Watch The Homecoming forearmed with knowledge of the play for best results; Robert Cushman provides a fine analysis of the play’s themes in his review. The Homecoming continues until October 30 in repertory at the Avon Theatre.  

Ian Lake as Joey, Cara Ricketts as Ruth, Brian Dennehy as Max,
Aaron Krohn as Lenny.
Photo by Celia Von Tiedemann

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