Fathers and sons
Two plays that hit home
Two four-character plays that explore the father-son relationship, one of the oldest tropes in theater (think the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex), opened locally last weekend. The similarity ends there, however; these plays could hardly be less alike.
Taylor Mac’s Hir, at the Blue Room Theatre in Chico, is a present-day portrait of a family whose members are so unmoored in their thinking and behavior that the play goes beyond realism to what its author calls “absurd realism.” At times horrific, at times hilarious, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
It begins as Isaac Connor (Jonah Nilsson) comes home after three years as a Marine in Afghanistan, where he worked in “mortuary affairs,” recovering body parts for burial. “I pick up guts. Exploded guts,” he says. All Isaac wants is to be home and sleep in his own bed.
So much for sentimentality. Home is not what it once was, to put it mildly.
Isaac’s father, Arnold (Bruce Dillman), has had a stroke and is in a stupor, thanks in part to the estrogen his wife, Paige (Leesa Palmer), feeds him in his “shaky-shake” to make him as docile as his violence once made her. Now she’s treating the home like it’s a garbage dump—there’s debris everywhere—just to piss off Arnold, who used to beat her when he thought it wasn’t neat enough. And Isaac’s teenage sister, Maxine, is transitioning to become a man named Max (Justin Torres). Plus he’s sleeping in Isaac’s bed, relegating Isaac to the couch.
These brief descriptions don’t do the characters justice. They are a magnificently warped lot, and collectively they summon up many of society’s wrenching social changes, especially around issues of sexual identity, patriarchal dominance, and female power.
Directed by Joyce Henderson with her usual flair, and performed by four outstanding actors playing difficult roles, Hir is a mind-bending tale of dysfunction writ large. The Connors are like no family you know, but there’s a little of them in all of us.
Meanwhile, Paradise’s Theatre on the Ridge is presenting Of Kites and Kings, Grass Valley playwright Gary Wright’s historical comedy about Benjamin Franklin (Christopher Jones) and his illegitimate son William (Andy Hafer). Mirroring their relationship is the one between William and his illegitimate son Temple (Addison Turner).
The word “kites” in the title refers to Ben Franklin’s legendary electricity experiment with a kite, at which William was the only other person present. Three scenes in the play are of them out in a storm, waiting for lightning to strike.
The word “kings” refers to the fact that, during the Revolutionary War, father and son found themselves on opposing sides, with William—who attended school in England—remaining loyal to the English king, while his father became one of this nation’s founders.
Did I mention this is a comedy? It is, thanks mostly to the character Polly Stevenson, proprietor of the boarding house where Ben Franklin lives during his long stay in England. All of the actors in this production do excellent work, but Samantha Shaner, who plays Polly, truly shines. As the narrator of the play, Polly often speaks directly to the audience, sharing her bawdy fantasies and poking fun at herself and others. She’s larger than life, and Shaner embodies her brilliantly.
Polly also is half of the one romantic relationship in the play, that between her and William. Her long unrequited love for him is one of the drivers that move the play forward. In the end, though, Of Kites and Kings is about the pull of history and how it can overwhelm the love of sons for their fathers.