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Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure is a tight-knit family drama so comfortable in its skin that the rich mix of race, class, and sexuality, which a heavy-handed playwright would grimly hammer at, is unremarked upon. Instead, Bonds’ ear for language and conversation drives her four protagonists, spanning three generations, as they make sacrifices for the people they love and come to terms with letting go. Currently lighting up Studio Theatre’s intimate Milton Theatre, Bonds’ little gem of a play forces audiences to face loss directly.
The family gathers in a New Mexico hotel room, where grandpa Rudy and daughter-in-law Linda wait for Linda’s son Felix and his partner Jackson. This is no Thanksgiving: The gathering is a funeral for Cyrus—Rudy’s son, Felix’s father, Linda’s husband, and an all-around worthless guy who left his father, wife, and son to start another family elsewhere. The love for the deceased is not bubbling over.
Since Cyrus’ departure, the family has grown stagnant. Years after the abandonment, Linda still lives with and cares for Rudy, and mulls leaving her job to care full-time for her father-in-law as he decays mentally and physically. Rudy (Peter Van Wagner), is determined to not be a burden and, as fluids gush out of his octogenarian body, yells, “No one should die like this.” Alas, a life lived long enough can lead to an undignified exit.
But Linda (a warm Ora Jones) also has other concerns. As her son and his partner enter stage right, her concerns so seamlessly meld into the frights of a mother in a more traditional family that one has to admire Bonds’ deft sidesteps of identity: Rudy is white, Linda is African-American, and Felix (Justin Weaks) and Jackson (Sebastian Arboleda) are gay. On this stage, they are just human.
Linda worries because Jackson has tattoos, was raised in a trailer park, and seems to financially depend on Felix. Is Jackson the right long-term partner for her son?
And this mother’s laser sharp instinct has sniffed out trouble. Without telling Linda, Felix and Jackson have taken in Jackson’s niece to save her from Jackson’s drug-addled sister. Yet, despite her reservations, she finds herself connecting with Jackson, portrayed empathetically by Arboleda. He is solid, grounded, has a deep heart, and a desire to sacrifice for his family. And that family now includes Felix, played by Justin Weaks with the force of a coiled spring, flexing and unflexing his energy across the stage.
Bitterly scarred by his absent father, Felix is unsure if he is ready for the commitment of raising Jackson’s niece. It’s the sort of uneasiness that leads to excuses, from financial constraints to “It’s been so touch and go.”
As Felix wrestles with himself and the obligations he feels toward his two families, an overwhelming sense of goodness envelops everybody, leading to a slightly monochromatic cast of characters. All the bad people are off-stage, leaving the good folks to pick up the pieces and navigate the world.
This is Rachel Bonds’ second play at Studio Theatre, after The Wolfe Twins, which premiered there in 2014. It will be interesting to see how her career evolves and if she manages to stretch the moral compasses of her characters within a single script. Director Mike Donahue has adroitly managed the cast and flow of this work. Lauren Helpern’s well-designed stage brings the audience to within inches of the rat-a-tat of family anguish, as the four cast members move about stage, willing to slice off bits and pieces of themselves for the people they love.
But even more than sacrifice, Curve of Departure is about letting go. The title is culled from a Sharon Olds poem, “First Thanksgiving,” in which a mother looks forward to welcoming her college-going child home for Thanksgiving. As the poem flows, the mother mulls:
“As a child, I caught/ bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,/ looked into their wild faces,/ listened to them sing, then tossed them back/ into the air—I remember the moment the/ arc of my toss swerved, and they entered/ the corrected curve of their departure.”
Each and every parent who has held a child, and each and every child who parents a parent, dreads the moment when that humming life—fresh or stale—that leaches love, leaps into thin air, free.
At Studio Theatre to Jan. 7, 2018. 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.