In the novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy tells readers: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And so it is with the family in Lucia Del Vecchio’s witty new play The Family Tree, onstage through the month of May at The Magnetic Field in the River Arts District.
The play’s title refers both to the twisted family dynamics of the protagonist, Ben (played by Erik Moellering), and to his personal mission as the archetypal tree-hugging activist, an all-consuming endeavor that promotes (in a cliché seized by Del Vecchio) dreadlocks, extreme body odor and “a diet of rancid soymilk.”
The play opens on the final day of Ben’s two-month “tree sit,” a practice associated with the old-growth forests of the West Coast, in which a platform hundreds of feet off the ground provides a perch for activists to install themselves 24/7 with the goal of preventing trees from being logged.
On this day, Ben is the unhappy recipient of a visit from his bold, fashionable and hopelessly unsympathetic mother, Clarice (Katie Langwell), who somehow manages to climb aloft to his platform in a trim skirt and heels. She’s there, “like a bad acid flashback,” as Ben puts it, to urge her son to “blow this whole save-the-world thing” and return home to attend the opening of his father’s new SUV dealership — a symbol for Ben of all that’s wrong with the so-called post-modern consumerist world.
And so begins Ben’s re-entry into a world that affronts his revolutionary ideals, to rejoin his nuclear family at its “ground zero” and confront their various and sometimes hilarious neuroses. From his perennially rejected sister, Claire (Tiffany Cade), who informs him she “prefers to have political conversations after my morning B.M.,” to his coquettish, manipulative other sister, Chastity (Lisa Smith), to his hopelessly passive father, Harvey (Alphie Hyorth), this is a family Tolstoy would appreciate. “How much inner peace does one person need?” bellows Clarice, interrupting Ben’s morning meditation as he tries to manage his first full day back in the fold.
The script makes repeated use of the dream sequence, a familiar theatrical device. Twentieth-century film, perhaps influenced by Freud (another big observer of family dysfunction), has made much use of dream sequences. Think of Hitchcock’s Spellbound or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or even The Wizard of Oz, where most of the film occurs in a land created by a concussion-inspired dream. Some would argue that the dream sequence has become cliché, the sort of thing David Letterman makes fun of on late-night TV. More to the point, though: In a good production, every element (script, acting, sound, lighting, etc.) should articulate what Aristotle called the work’s dianoia: the “diagnosis” or central unifying idea of the production, or what it’s finally really about.
In that regard, the dream sequences were the weakest part of the production for this reviewer; it wasn’t clear that the disjointed bits were dreams until the third one, when Clarice asserts, “This is my dream.” Some element of otherworldly music or lighting at such moments would have helped distinguish the dream world from present-tense reality. That weakness aside, as the play leads toward its explosive conclusion, it’s clear that Ben wants his next move to be “something big … something to leave behind for the record books.” But what he finds is bigger than he could have imagined, and in the end proves his downfall.
The script is fairly profane, so this isn’t a piece for young children. Newcomers should be advised that the rear section of the house uses tiny chairs positioned close together, thrusting total strangers into close physical proximity (which tends to support the dianoia of this production, but might not do so for future events that don’t address the discomfiture of postmodern life). There’s also the problem of noise penetrating an external fire-escape door, which is unfortunately placed in the middle of the house, and admits the sound of conversation and traffic noise from passersby during the play’s quiet moments.
Overall, however, this reviewer (and my accomplice) enjoyed our newest theater company’s witty, entertaining play, with its clever props and set design on the small stage. The audience enjoyed it too, it seemed, since at least half responded with a standing ovation. With this production, the Magnetic Field continues its commitment to all-local playwrights. It doesn’t hurt that Asheville’s charms attract some world-class talent: director Steven Samuels is a veteran of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., among other venerable institutions (most notably, the national Theatre Communications Group). Del Vecchio has crafted a fine and funny script, whose characters are believable, if somewhat clichéd, as befits a dark comedy about the dysfunctional family in America.
The Family Tree continues at The Magnetic Field at 364 Depot St. Thursdays through Saturdays, May 19-21 and 26-28, with two shows per night, at 7:30 and 10:00. Tickets are $12-$14 with open seating.