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Remember the Quinns? When Washington audiences met them in Round House Theatre’s Escape From Happiness last year, the women of this deliriously dysfunctional clan were circling their domestic wagons around the youngest’s boyfriend, who’d managed to aggravate both the neighborhood toughs and the local law. They were an extravagantly frazzled foursome, and if their family life was a little fractured, they were still ferocious about defending their own against outside threats.
Now, Round House wants you to think about how they got that way. Better Living, George F. Walker’s disturbingly funny “prequel” to Escape From Happiness, answers some of the questions audiences might have about the origins of the Quinn women’s quirks—and raises plenty more. Where Escape dealt with the resilience of family, offering hopeful ideas about the redemptive power of unswerving blood loyalty, Better Living considers the risks of that loyalty to the individuals who constitute the family, exploring the psychic and physical hazards of striving for domestic peace at any cost.
As the play opens, the eccentric but canny Quinn matriarch, Nora, is still working to repair the emotional damage done by an abusive husband who disappeared a decade before. The effort of holding things together has left her a little skittish, a little strained, and more than a little strange. She dreams elaborate and gruesomely detailed dreams about her husband’s death, though there’s evidence to suggest he’s still very much alive, and her housekeeping is as spotty as her visions are specific: The range barely works, the locks are all broken, and the kitchen is a pigsty. Recently, for whatever reason, she’s decided to add on a room. In the cellar. And she’s excavating it herself.
Her three daughters and her brother, a disillusioned priest, are only mildly dismayed by all this (though they realize, as one puts it, that Nora seems to be “living in some kind of fourth tense”).
They’ve seen it before, though, and they figure they can straighten it out between them. Then Tom, the missing father, reappears, and life among the Quinns takes a sharp detour into a whole new landscape of weirdness, a homeland at once more ordered and more surreal.
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Nora decides the best way to deal with Tom’s return is to pretend he’s somebody else, so she calls him Tim. Eldest daughter Elizabeth, a hard-nosed lawyer, tells him flatly and loudly he’s not welcome, but when the direct approach doesn’t drive him off, she’s at a loss despite her courtroom prowess. Breathlessly fragile middle daughter Mary Ann is too timid to put up much of a fight, though she does, in her more lucid moments, urge Elizabeth to do something. The relatively practical youngest, Gail, is at first open-minded and curious about the father who left before she got to know him; later, when buried memories resurface, her attitude changes.
It’s never entirely clear why Tom returns home, but he wastes no time reestablishing himself as lord of the manor. He seems largely unthreatening and even takes steps to restore some semblance of a civilized lifestyle, repairing appliances, replacing locks, and selling off the junked car that’s been sitting in the back yard for years. Soon, though, he imposes a rigid set of household rules governing everything from light switches to food consumption, and he institutes make-work projects to keep hands busy and minds empty. He even commandeers Nora’s basement excavation, which becomes a “sanctuary” and a storeroom for case after case of canned fruit and vegetables.
It all turns out to be preparation for an apocalypse that only he sees coming. For a while, the women resist in their various ways, but eventually they’re overcome by the force of his personality and the intangible chemistry of family. Then, too, the precarious order Tom has brought to the household is a seductive thing, and after a while it helps keep them from directly challenging decisions they know are unreasonable.
It’s not until all of them, even Elizabeth, have given into Tom’s authority that the extent of the danger becomes clear, by which time, drastic action is required. Round House, which has given six of Walker’s plays their local premieres, has a feel for this writer’s work that’s akin to the knack Signature has for Sondheim, or Woolly Mammoth for Nicky Silver. This cast is especially impressive: In her second outing as Nora, Nancy Robinette, who’s without peer when it comes to making neurotic characters endearing, takes this one to the outer limits of wacky without losing sight of her humanity. Jane Beard, who was a terrifyingly competent Elizabeth in Escape, conceives Better Living’s Mary Ann as a wired, wan copy of Nora, down to imitating some of the cadences of Robinette’s speech; it’s risky, and it succeeds brilliantly.
Kimberly Schraf inherits Elizabeth from Beard, and makes her an imposing creature, strong as cast iron and as explosively brittle under stress. Elizabeth Kitsos is back as a spunky, insouciant Gail, too; James Michael Caffery, a relative newcomer in local theater, is engagingly chuckleheaded as her boyfriend, Junior, who couldn’t care less who’s running the show as long as he doesn’t have to think too hard. Terry Wills’ Tom is deliciously, ambiguously sinister, while Richard Pilcher makes resignation respectable as Uncle Jack.
Daniel De Raey’s brisk, exuberant staging points up the facility with which the author blends the best elements of absurdist drama with a relatively straightforward narrative. If the result isn’t quite as striking as Escape From Happiness, it may be the writing, not the production. Walker has pointed observations to make about family friction and the ties that not only bind, but blind and blister; what escapes him is any kind of authoritative summing-up of what those observations mean.CP