Escape From Happiness
The Ooley Theatre2007 28th St.
Sacramento, CA 95818
This is one family that really knows how to put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.” That’s how you end up with a very dark comedy about a failing working-class neighborhood and family, and the cops who are supposed to keep a lid on everything.
Tom (Patrick Murphy) and Nora (Martha Omiyo Kight) have three daughters: Elizabeth (Kellie Yvonne Raines), Mary Ann (Kelley Ogden) and Gail (Jessicah Neufeld). Gail is married to Junior (Justin Muñoz), and they have a new baby. Tom, an abusive alcoholic, abandoned the family some years before; he’s recently returned, but he’s apparently quite ill with some unspecified form of dementia.
Yep, the premise for Escape From Happiness is a recipe for melodrama—if you don’t have the quick wit and radical politics of playwright George F. Walker. Oh, he keeps the family drama, but hews closely to Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that happy families are all alike, and Walker’s Dawson family is different in the way that only unhappy families must be.
And while this fine ensemble cast gets a workout (the plot involves a series of awakenings to duplicity, both minor and major, as well as an examination of police brutality and corruption), the real power is in the language. These characters say what they mean and mean what they say, a rarity in family life. All the years of trauma and pain have simply broken down their ability to lie; while they may try to behave in one way, every word that comes out of their mouths is true.
The complication comes in the form of a father-and-son criminal duo (Ben Moroski and Jeff Webster) who have “misplaced” some “stuff” and think that Tom and Junior have it. Junior gets beaten to a bloody pulp—offstage—and his battered body lies on the kitchen floor as the play opens. His injuries necessitate the involvement of a pair of less-than-congenial cops (Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly and Andrea Guidry), who raise the stress on the family.
As the eldest sister, Raines introduces a physicality that makes acting with noises rather than words a real possibility. She’s more than matched by Ogden as the neurotic middle sister and the inimitable Kight as the slightly delusional mother. The performances of these three alone make the show top-notch; add in Neufeld’s competent and tough (if a little high-strung) youngest sister and the excellent comedic work of Muñoz, and you’ve stretched it from a trifecta to an across-the-board winner.
Murphy doesn’t have much to do until the second act, but then he switches into high gear, and the supporting roles of the cops and crooks are fairly well done, if a little hesitant. The exception here is Webster—his Rolly, handyman turned small-time crook, is a nervous delight.
Set design by Nicholas Heacock and Nastassya Ferns is complex and serviceable. They know just when to go with detailed (the kitchen) and when to go with simple (the entrances and exits). Heacock gets extra points as stage manager for the smart use of a lot of food props.
Under Lisa Thew’s direction, KOLT Run Creations has come up with yet another thought-provoking instance of classic, locally produced theater.