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Review: The Familiars Brings a Dysfunctional Family Home for the Holidays

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The Familiars Edge Theatre Company Serious about working with local playwrights, the Edge Theatre Company commissioned a holiday show from Ellen K. Graham, whose enigmatic, razor-sharp How We May Know Him won a Best of Denver award some years back, and who has since earned national recognition. The result is The Familiars, which is softer-edged and more conventional than How We May Know Him but carries some seasonal gifts of its own. The play deals with two familiar holiday themes: the impossibly dysfunctional family whose members come together only on holidays and always with tension and strife, and the perennial idea of a seasonal, heart-opening transformation. See also: Best Theater Season 2014 -- Edge Theatre Company

The Burdock family is a mess. It's Christmas Eve, and Kath has arrived at the family home. When we first see her, she's frantically reciting a passage about being and reacting from a self-help book -- and heaven knows, she seems to need help. As she and her mother, Honora, set about making cookies a few minutes later, we discover that Kath is not only tense and quivery as an electric wire, but constantly angry. You can see the cause in Honora's controlling behavior. The cookies must be made just so, and they're not for family eating, but for packaging in perfect little gift boxes, a specific number to each box. All the same decorations must be set out in the same places year after year, and each family member must always wear a particular holiday sweater for the requisite family photograph. Honora is so concerned with appearance and facade that she has regularly hired an actor to stand in for the family's absent father on the annual Christmas card.

But then Honora has an episode that has something to do with an incident at a Christmas show, a finger of light and the stuffed dancing tree on the family's mantel. She goes off for a brief rest and returns transformed, wearing a pretty, wafting aqua dress. Meanwhile, Kath has been joined by her adult siblings: glamorous sister Chris and glue-sniffing, sober-all-of-five-days brother Dom. He's brought along Fedosia, the woman he's apparently married and who seems altogether too kindly, grounded and matter-of-fact for this family.

The dialogue for this smart, fast-thinking crew is funny and the acting solid. Carol Bloom has a gentle charm that makes her more convincing as Honora transformed than as the oppressive matriarch we see at the beginning. Paula Friedland communicates all of Kath's neuroses with fervor, though her performance is a little one-note, and Patty Ionoff has fine comic timing as Chris. Suzanne Nepi's Fedosia is one of those sensible, insightful, slightly reserved but generally empathetic women you'd like to know better, and August Truhn's low-key, mellow Dom contrasts nicely with the quivering anxiety all around him. Through the first act and much of the second, The Familiars is entertaining, but it ultimately falls short.

That's because the characters lack complexity and inner life, and the plot lacks energy. Once we realize what's happened to Honora, there's not much tension left, just a prolonged playing out of the fairly predictable consequences. Graham does introduce a couple of unexpected events in the second act, the first being the arrival of Kath's weirdly menacing daughter Diana, played by Missy Moore. But Diana's really just a caricature who has inexplicably erupted into an absurdly eccentric but essentially realistic family ensemble, throwing the tone of the entire play off-kilter. And then there's the surprise visit that isn't much of a surprise and doesn't explain or clarify anything. Still, there's enough talent and originality here to make us look forward to whatever world Graham decides to invent next.

The Familiars, presented by the Edge Theater Company through December 28, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood. For more information, call 303-232-0363 or go to theedgetheater.com.

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