Family ties

Off the Map

Rebecca Clouse and Julia Brothers in <i>Off the Map</i>: “Mommy, why must you always read <i>Where the Wild Things Are</i>, when I’d rather hear <i>The Very Hungry Caterpillar</i>?”

Rebecca Clouse and Julia Brothers in Off the Map: “Mommy, why must you always read Where the Wild Things Are, when I’d rather hear The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”

Rated 5.0

It’s a comedy involving a self-reliant man so far gone into a crippling depression that the strain is pulling his whole family down: That’s one of several paradoxes that drive Off the Map.

The title refers to where the family lives—remote, rural New Mexico, way past where the pavement ends. The time is the early 1970s, and the lifestyle is straight out of the Whole Earth Catalog: homegrown veggies; bartered firewood; home appliances rescued from the dump and repaired; and books, read aloud, for the benefit of the spunky 12-year-old, home-schooled daughter. These folks would go on nice trips if the library had the equivalent of a frequent-flier plan.

But, getting back to the paradoxes, the parents are ardent do-it-yourselfers, but the daughter—a perky kid—hankers after a credit card and material things. And, although these folks live in the desert, they spend their evenings listening to mom read Richard Henry Dana’s tale of a young man’s sea-voyage, Two Years Before the Mast. Nautical references crop up in scene after scene.

Funny situations and bright comic dialogue are there in abundance, but below the surface this is the story of a tightly knit family and a few close friends, helping each other through life’s rough patches and dead ends, such as coming of age or pulling yourself or your spouse out of a deep blue funk.

Playwright Joan Ackerman structures her script as a memory play, but it’s also akin to a fable. The story seems to advance on an intuitive and fantastical basis, but it’s actually carefully structured. She repeatedly invokes the natural world and the mystical appeal of wild animals (uncommon onstage) and hints at Hopi religious wisdom.

Off the Map is a rare bird in two other ways, as well: The story concerns people who’ve chosen to live, plainly but comfortably, on society’s outer edge, and the play pivots on a precocious child just about to become a teen. It’s a hugely critical time in the life of any child and his or her parent. Every adult has lived through it, but it’s territory we seldom see covered onstage.

The particulars: Julia Brothers is delightful as the earthy, resourceful, levelheaded mom. (There’s a great scene in which she urgently pleads with her gloomy husband, who’s locked himself away in … well, let’s leave that surprise for those who see the play.) Rebecca Clouse, an energetic 12-year-old who made a good Puck at the Actors Theatre earlier this year, is charming and confident in a role that could have been written for her. Brook Campanelli plays the same character as an adult looking back, providing narration.

David Weininger has relatively few lines but many meaningful, quiet moments as the depressed dad. Greg Alexander is the loyal, if dimwitted, friend standing by his troubled buddy. Jason Kuykendall, fresh from the B Street’s Last Train to Nibroc, plays an IRS agent from the outside world.

Director Jerry Montoya manages things quite resourcefully, and this is a project that easily could have gone awry if the sense of a magical past was not sustained or if the timing was off-kilter.