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Let’s see: We’ve got one dead husband, one dead lover, and one dead fiancé. We’ve got one bipolar husband who’s probably headed for a third suicide attempt, one worshipful boyfriend who’s plainly a stalker in training, and one neat-freak lover who’s clearly got a little psychological tidying-up to do. We’ve got one long-suffering daughter in San Diego, one long-simmering son in D.C., and one Cincinnati-based mommie dearest who seems determined to make her children as crabbed and miserable as she is. We’ve got, in short, a Play About Relationships—which also, oh by the way, wishes us to notice that it’s a Play About Structure, too. Good thing it’s funny.
At least Whole Against the Sky reads funny—when it’s not trying to break your heart. And it must be said that when things are clicking at Shirlington’s Theatre on the Run—when that Gorgon of a maternal unit mistakes her son’s busily vacuuming new boyfriend for the housekeeper, for instance—the Trumpet Vine Theatre Company’s production suggests that with a little tightening, Whole Against the Sky could find itself a home among the bittersweet queer comedies of Terrence McNally and Paul Rudnick, or even a place on the domestic-dysfunction shelf alongside the acid satires of Edward Albee. It’s smart, and it’s got a thing or two to say.
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Those things, though, go mostly unheard at Trumpet Vine, and the jokes land with an echoing thud, thanks largely to molasses-slow staging and a raft of performances that range from undercooked to overly arch. (A hint about the latter, in case anyone wants one: Albee’s characters don’t know they’re in Albee plays.) And whether it’s because Donnelly’s latest revisions come a full decade after his earliest drafts, or simply because the Trumpet Vine cast isn’t up to the clutchwork his emotional gear-changes demand, Whole Against the Sky ends up feeling like two plays wedged awkwardly into one evening.
Jack (Jon Townson) and Linda (Ellie Nicoll) have flown in from opposite coasts to celebrate the impending remarriage of their widowed mother (Jean Hudson Miller) to a Limbaugh-listening, ’mo-hating NRA voter—a choice of husband that’s inspired a particularly lively round of reminiscing featuring not just the kids’ unhappy childhoods (“You were the best parents two angry, disappointed people could have been,” Jack tells Mom, sweetly) but big swaths of their unhappy adulthoods, too. Linda, it turns out, has been widowed once and thinks her family hasn’t been sufficiently supportive, and that’s nothing next to the way they treat her current husband, the pill-thieving, frequently suicidal Greg (Gerald B. Browning). Jack, meanwhile, has been told that his head-over-heels boyfriend, Dennis (Daniel Mascarello), is anything but welcome at the nuptial festivities, which is salt in the remembered wounds of the family’s fumbled response to his late lover’s long, slow death from AIDS complications. (Did I mention that there are jokes?)
Before long, the wedding gets derailed, and a bit later Jack gets a breakup and a new boyfriend—the one with the cleaning fetish and the mother issues—and later still he has to figure out how to make up with his own mom, who’s turned up feeling lonely and looking to reconcile, without letting her poison that whole new-boyfriend thing.
It’s ambitious, this would-be quicksilver comedy that keeps stopping for spotlit monologues in which the characters pick at the scars left by their damaged spouses and damaging parents. In between laughs, the play’s a potentially charming little entertainment that wants you to learn a little something about relationships and boundaries and needs—about how to negotiate the last two without poisoning the first. Taken for what it wants to say, it’s a sensible, even charitable piece of work: It’s got a big heart and a level head, and its fractious mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, and lovers are meant to help us understand that coupling up always involves as much balancing as it does bliss.
Taken as theater, it’s less successful, at least in this unsteady premiere production. Those neatly symmetrical structures seem more academically pleasing than organically engaging, and the story tips sideways after intermission anyway, as Linda’s unhappinesses get subordinated to a plot that tilts in the direction of Jack’s household. The self-consciousness of the cast’s performances, meanwhile, drains the sparkle from the witty scenes and the drama from the solemn ones.
The sets, by Vincent Worthington and Paul McCutcheon, look surprisingly substantial for a smallish company, and they support the story aptly enough, especially in Act 2’s extended too-close-for-comfort sequence. The costumes (attributed to one “Fleur du Mal”) are haphazard, though, and the show’s tech elements border on the disastrous. Blackouts linger too long while sound designer Jeff Kellum makes camp musical jokes about the scenes we’re about to see—an indulgence that only confirms the suspicion that Donnelly’s done himself no favors by directing a script he’s clearly labored long and hard over.
Ironic, that: The title has to do with a Rilke quote about the distance required for two individuals to have a shot at a healthy relationship—a distance that “makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” It’s that distance, together with the poise and the confidence and the maturity it speaks of, that Donnelly wants to offer up as a kind of hopeful thing in his play—and that distance is missing in his production.CP