Thomas Wolfe to the contrary, you can go home again, though it takes a life-altering event for adult siblings Bo and Ally to set foot anywhere near their Idaho birthplace in A Permanent Image, Samuel D. Hunter’s 2011 journey into the dark heart of the American Northwest, now getting a superb West Coast Premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre.
Were it not for the heart attack that took their dad’s life a couple days before Christmas, 40ish Bo (Ned Mochel) and his younger sister (Tracie Lockwood) would likely have continued to keep as far a distance from home as possible, but death is death, and photojournalist Ned has flown back to small-town Idaho from his latest assignment in Tel Aviv to be with Mom and Sis.
Carol’s journey may be a mere two hours away from the home she shares her lesbian lover and their two-year-old son, but that doesn’t mean she’s been any more frequent a visitor than her older brother. Just ask Grandma Carol (Anne Gee Byrd), who hasn’t seen her grandbaby but once since his birth.
Clearly, if Bo and Ally have made it their business not to be Home For The Holidays, there must be a reason, and indeed their family’s particular brand of dysfunction proves just one of the truths that will be revealed over the course of the grown siblings’ twenty-four hour visit with Mom.
We learn from the get-go about the video selfie recorded by Bo and Ally’s father Martin (Mark L. Taylor) soon before his death, and that one of Dad’s lifelong passions has been keeping permanent images of his children’s lives on tape. A more recent obsession has been a preoccupation with The Big Bang, and with his own place in the universe.
Like the old-folks home residents of Rest, the small-town newspaper staffers of The Few, or the 600-pound protagonist of The Whale, A Permanent Image’s dramatis personae aren’t people I’d normally choose to spend time with, nor does Idaho (also the setting of Rogue Machine’s previous Hunter hit A Bright New Boise) top my list of must-visit states.
Still, like the greatest of American playwrights before him, Hunter creates characters (and reveals universal truths) that we all can identify with, and time spent in the bleak, frigid Idaho that inspires him is time well spent.
Though cosmological theory may be out of my own personal grasp, the other questions raised in A Permanent Image are far from unfathomable. Whether it’s Ally’s obsession with work and her fear of impending calamity that have put her relationship in jeopardy, or Ned’s need to document human suffering as far from home as possible while doing nothing to alleviate it, or a parent’s insistence on ultimate control over his or her own life and death, the characters inhabiting Hunter’s play and the issues they confront are not all that different from yours and mine.
Previously produced in Boise and Chicago, A Permanent Image now gets a West Coast Premiere that provides a textbook example of what makes Los Angeles 99-seat-plan so absolutely essential to the particular needs of the country’s second-largest Actors Equity membership.
It’s is hard to imagine a finer ensemble than the all-AEA trio live onstage at Rogue Machine, and when you add a videotaped fourth Equity member to the cast list, that’s a quartet of our finest actors who’d be at home twiddling their thumbs were our intimate theater scene to go non-union.
Under John Perrin Flynn’s superb direction, local treasure Byrd once again reveals prodigious gifts as the wry, gritty, whiskey-guzzling Carol, and she is matched every step of the way by Mochel’s dynamic, nuanced work as Bo and Lockwood’s ballsy, emotionally wrenching turn as Ally.
As for production design, anyone asserting that set, lighting, sound, and costumes should play second-fiddle to performance need only check out the latest from Rogue Machine to see precisely why design is as essential to great theater as the actors onstage.
Scenic designer David A. Mauer has taken Bo and Ally’s parents’ average, ordinary, but painstakingly appointed Idaho living room and painted every single item in it white, since one of the things we learn in A Permanent Image’s first minutes is that Carol has done her own house painting in the hours after Martin’s death (whether a result of either booze or insanity, you be the judge). Dan Weingarten lights Mauer’s set with subtle brilliance, Colin Wambsgans’ sound design enhances the drama and mystery of Hunter’s script every step of the way, and costume designer Elizabeth A. Cox’s choice of outfits match each character to perfection.
Finally, if there’s any production design element that will get folks talking long after fadeout, it is Nicholas Santiago’s absolutely spectacular projection design, from the planetarium-ready cosmological images that fill the stage as the audience awaits preshow announcements, to the genius that allows us to actually see Martin (an excellent Taylor on video) seated on the sofa where he died, to the production’s absolutely stunning final moments, this is projection design at its most extraordinary and innovative.
Oh, and if the name Ned Mochel rings a bell from the jaw-dropping violence design he has created for Vs. Theatre and the Geffen, A Permanent Image’s Bo reveals here yet again why he is an L.A. fight choreographer of magnum luster.
A Permanent Image is produced by Flynn and Mauer, and Mauer serves also as technical director.
Ramón Valdez is stage manager. Additional program credits go to Amanda Mauer (production manager), Ilana Rozin (assistant director), David Combs (associate producer), and Victoria Hoffman (casting). Producing director Matthew Elkins understudies the role of Bo.
I’ve been a huge Samuel D. Hunter fan since Rogue Machine West Coast Premiered A Bright New Boise three years ago, and I have followed his work to The Old Globe and South Coast Repertory for each new Hunter revelation since then.
It is thrilling to have Hunter’s Idaho back here in L.A. as Rogue Machine’s 2015-2016 season opener.
Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
June 15, 2015
Photos: John Flynn