Dirty Laundry

Like the rotting entrails of the butchered animal one of them has dumped in the backyard, a Queens family's darkest secrets ooze with stultifying frankness as a holiday barbecue unfolds. Knit together by tears as well as blood, the Robinsons and the O'Conners have dutifully gathered for their annual Labor Day soiree in the hopes that they might have a good time without feeling the urge to strike, maim or psychologically terrorize each other. But before Tammy Ryan's Pig is even a few minutes old, those hopes go flying out the window of the claustrophobic bungalow that most of these damaged souls call home. By the time the drama swells to its horrific climax, the patriarch's sins revisit themselves on his son in ways that threaten to lay waste to the entire clan.

Presented at the Shop Theatre by Tracer Productions, Ryan's unflinching story shines a harsh light on the subject of domestic discord. A battered wife seeks sanctuary in the family home only to get roundly socked in the eye by her sibling; a daughter who fears intimacy in any form is forced to relieve herself in the presence of family members; and a suicidal young man faces down his know-it-all father in a deadly game of charades. Fortunately, director Christopher Leo and the talented ensemble lend artful restraint to the sometimes gruesome goings-on.

That's mostly because the actors imbue their portrayals with nuance and intensity without turning Ryan's bare-fisted dialogue into a Chekhovian shouting match. And even though most of the family members have more vices than virtues, the performers emphasize each character's determination to cling to any positive deed -- no matter how insubstantial or spuriously conceived -- that will keep them from sliding even deeper into the unhappiness pit.

That blighted, unyielding sense of optimism manifests itself most clearly in Maggie Mowbray's winning portrait of Jeanann, the youngest Robinson child. Stamping about and clenching her fists with adolescent fury, the University of Denver student earns sympathetic laughter with her delivery of "I swear!" -- a familiar teenage battle cry that bespeaks Jeanann's frustration with being treated like a child while being expected to act like an adult. The only member of the family who has yet to make a mess of her life, the pigtailed pixie dreams of financial and spiritual emancipation, an idea that Mowbray beautifully conveys when she muses about piloting an airplane high above the neighborhood.

Those same threads of hope are just as evident, though progressively more threadbare, in C. Kelly Douglass's portrayal of middle daughter Peggy, whose marriage falls prey to the same sort of violence that has marked her parents' relationship. Douglass wisely avoids the twin traps of self-pity and self-reproach, showing us instead a woman struggling to come to terms with difficulties she vaguely recognizes but can't begin to understand -- which is actually a sight more than can be said for the oldest sister, Maureen, performed to perfection by newcomer Emily Paton Davies. Attractive, engaging and seemingly well-adjusted, Mo, as she's called, dresses and behaves like a mature, monumentally bored twenty-year-old. In reality, though, she's a thirty-year-old spinster who's never had a meaningful relationship in her life -- partly because she has never left home. When Mo is compelled to confront her life's greatest regret, her fragile facade suddenly gives way to an avalanche of unrequited femininity -- a gut-wrenching episode that Davies plays with sublime honesty.

As the family matriarch, Irene, Martha Greenberg locates her character's sense of numbed resignation, if not her gnawing bitterness: She's evidently been putting up with so much for so long that her husband's behavior doesn't seem quite so abominable to her as it might to a first-time observer. Charles Kolar and Barbara Porreca prove endearing as the visiting aunt and uncle, rising to the occasion during Act Two when the action reaches a fevered pitch. Josh Hartwell is credible as the troubled son who goes AWOL from the Navy in order to exact a hideous, almost Senecan form of revenge on his family. And as Santos, the next-door neighbor, R. Kent Randell adds a measure of normalcy -- or what passes for normalcy among these dysfunctional misfits -- to the otherwise bizarre proceedings.

But the best performance belongs to James Ryan, whose swaggering turn as Jack, the embittered father, evokes an entire range of emotions. Whether he's sneering at his son's attempts to gain equal footing, belittling his wife and daughters for extending this or that affection, or recounting the childhood incident that left him forever changed, Ryan is eminently convincing. So is Raymond Fernandez's stark setting, which transforms the tiny stage into an urban pressure cooker brimming with a lethal mixture of fear, love and failure. Aided by Leo's largely hands-off, mostly on-target direction, Ryan's uncomfortably blunt drama speaks to the power of parental caprice to make itself felt for generations.

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Jim Lillie

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