HARD TO WATCH, BUT “SUPERB”
By Philip Pearce
Entering the Western Stage Studio Theater for A Song For My Father you face a driveway leading to a garage door. When the action starts, a man named Randy Wolf opens the door and you face that most telling symbol of America’s hoarder mentality, the garage too stuffed with junk to house an automobile.
But this is not to be a play about American greed. The dark open space upstage center, as the play progresses, will yield up the flotsam and jetsam—furniture, phones and clothing, walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds and medicine tables—that are significant equipment in the lives of poet Randy and his cantankerous Cleveland working class dad Frank. A Song For My Father probes, dissects and analyzes their fraught relationship with a realism I can only call relentless. “That was cheery,” one spectator cracked after the curtain call. “Powerful, but I tuned out fifteen minutes ago. It was too much,” commented another. Playwright David Budbill’s answer is, “If you never get the blues, this play is not for you.” Western Stage offers it with power and distinction.
Act I is provocative and interactive: Randy challenges, sometimes negotiates his way into a backward look at his stormy relationship with Frank. But Frank and Randy’s mother Ruth stand by and keep interrupting, correcting, protesting in a sometimes funny, sometimes fiery three-way debate. Randy even coerces the other two into staging an improvised sequence in which Frank will play his own drunken and abusive father, Ruth will become Frank’s battered and victimized mother, while Randy plays his own father as a small boy. It’s a warning to both fathers and sons that, too often, we end up recycling the very things we hated most about our parents. The probing and dissection never let up.
There were moments early on when I reacted. “Enough, already!” I thought as the members of this troubled tribe repeated their lone argumentative mantras. “You’re a mess! You’re a mess!” Frank keeps shouting at his son. “She’s not my mother! She’s not my mother!” Randy intones like the boring refrain of some tiresome folk song when Ruth dies and Frank remarries. In a typically well-made play, the playwright would gauge how much we spectators need to be told something, and once the point has sunk in would move on to the next revelation. But I gradually realized that Budbill isn’t feeding us dramatic information, he is forcing us to experience the reality of family conflicts in which the combatants do indeed say the same damned thing over and over again till you want to scream. It’s part of the anguish. It’s central to the experience.
Budbill’s script points up ugly truths about family dysfunction we‘d probably rather not look at. It reminds us, for one thing, that not all conflicts have a resolution. The central issue of the plot, Randy’s desire to understand himself in relationship to his strident, opinionated father, ends only in the chaos of Frank’s slow decline into diabetes and dementia and death. It’s a raw, unpleasant process that occupies much of Act Two, and it’s what caused some spectators to tune out.
The play also offers problems without a list of answers at the back of the book. In his early lucid moments of Act One, Frank is righteously adamant that, though early in his working life he “traveled,” he was never “a traveling man”—the name given to a guy whose travels included seedy assignations in rural hotel rooms at the end of his work day. Yet in his Second Act dementia, Frank suddenly boasts lasciviously of repeated one-night stands when he was on the road as a young salesman. We can hope this is just a demented delusion, but the issue is never settled. Whatever happens in stage plays, this script says that life offers few clear and easy answers. Not even how to understand three poignant moments when Frank, for no obvious reason, says, “I love you, Randy,” and we hope he means it.
It’s strong stuff and calls for good acting and inventive staging. Director Lorenzo Aragon moves the action skillfully around the playing area with subtle light changes that help to mark transitions and to spotlight key moments and characters.
The acting is superb. Skot Davis is able to shade and distinguish Randy Wolf’s varied sufferings, from comic frustrations over his old man‘s illogic, to towering rages worthy of a Greek tragic hero. Emotionally, it ends in a crushing sense of guilt as Randy watches his father die with the lines of communication all blocked. It is an explosive and demanding role which Davis plays with force and assurance..
William J. Wolak is nothing short of brilliant in the even more passionate and complicated role of Frank Wolf. This is a deeply conflicted man, as desperately committed to getting his only son through college and as he is to pouring contempt on him as an erudite yuppie too forgetful of his working class roots to dirty his hands in an honest trade. Wolak’s performance is masterly. His presentation of the horror of Frank’s physical and emotional pain, his slow terrible decline into dementia and death will indeed be strong meat for the casual playgoer.
The wonderful Jill Jackson plays the two women Frank marries. As first wife Ruth she adds an element of patient tenderness sadly lacking in any of the interplay between her son and her husband. Frank admits that marriage to Ruth moved him up a rung of the social ladder, but Jackson never allows her to seem smug or patronizing. We can share Randy’s sincere grief when this sane center of gravity is removed with her death. Enter Frank’s second wife, the perky, shrill Ivy, a nervous Evangelical Christian as well meaning as she is unbearable, especially to Randy. Jackson plays her with a brisk and sympathetic energy that rightfully earned an ovation after the trills and shrieks of one of Ivy’s lengthy phone conversations.
The fourth member of this fine cast, scrubbed and lovely and competent, is Reina Cruz Vazquez. As Frank’s patient and adaptable nursing home care giver Betty, she is a lungful of fresh air in a Second Act thick with the conflict and confusion of Frank’s plummeting health. She is there to offer Frank her quiet humor and healing hands, but even that explodes unexpectedly as Vazquez, in a moment of finely tuned acting, drops the calm and sweet veneer and turns her bottled up exhausted rage on a Frank who is really just another in a working day full of ugly, pawing insatiable geriatric nuisances.
A Song For My Father is not a nice uplifting evening out, but it is challenging and beautiful theater. It continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm until November 24th.