When choosing Homefree, Lisa Loomer’s compelling, often devastating look at a trio of homeless teens, as the first production of its 2014-2015 season, the Road Theatre Company could not possibly have imagined that only four days after Opening Night, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti would publicly declare a “state of emergency” on homelessness, words that would render the latest Road World Premiere as timely as this week’s headlines.
Based on Loomer’s in-depth conversations with the homeless of Medford and Ashland, Oregon where her play is set, Homefree focuses on three very different teenagers with one vital point in common—all are living on the streets, panhandling for cash, and unsure of where their next meal will come from, or even if there will be a next meal.
Pregnant Latina Breezy (Gabriela Ortega) has escaped a Jehovah’s Witness mother who has turned a blind eye to her daughter’s sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
Emotionally-scarred hothead JJ (Barret Lewis) has his own horror stories of an explosive upbringing at the hands of a physically, emotionally violent father who may well have left his son scarred for life.
Out-and-proud gay teen Franklin (Lockne O’Brien) has been kicked out by conservative Christian parents outraged at his unwillingness to enter a conversion therapy camp to “cure” him of his homosexuality.
Despite differences that under other circumstances would keep them as resolutely apart as John Hughes’ Breakfast Clubbers, homelessness turns the threesome into partners in survival, with Breezy torn between the dangers of hunky hottie JJ and the safety of sensitive sweetie Franklin.
Circling menacingly around the intrepid but frightened trio throughout Act One are a pair of ghoulishly made-up Insane Clown Posse “Juggalos” (Chelsea Averil and Donald Russell), whose places are taken post-intermission by the hippy-dippy pothead twosome of new-agey Shannon (Averil) and borderline schizophrenic Aaron (Russell).
Meanwhile, Steve Apostolina and Elizabeth Herron inhabit the skins of a dozen or so 40somethings with whom our homeless trio interact, or interacted before circumstances left them without a roof over their heads or a penny to their names.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are moments in Homefree that prove uncomfortable to sit through, particularly those involving the Juggalos, and once Shannon and Aaron show up, you may find yourself wishing for the teens to seek out less obnoxious companions.
Still, it’s hard to deny that these less than savory, less than agreeable supporting characters add realism and grit to Breezy, JJ, and Franklin’s days and nights on the streets, and though much of Act Two takes place in an Ashland park, the time these teenagers spend together is (excuse the pun) no picnic.
Homefree’s World Premiere benefits enormously from the electrifying direction of Michael Matthews, who infuses the production with virtually non-stop dramatic tension tempered by moments of humor and occasionally even grace. (Even scene changes are executed with theatrical flair.)
USC Junior Ortega makes for a poignantly real Breezy opposite an equally heartbreaking, equally engaging O’Brien, while Lewis positively burns up the stage in his star-making turn as JJ. Averil and Russell are sinister (and unrecognizable) in their Act One clown paint, then invest Act Two’s Shannon and Aaron with twisted complexities. As for Apostolina and Herron, the stage vets disappear into one humdinger of a cameo after another as both parents (caring and cold-blooded) and passers-by (unscrupulous and selfless).
Following his exciting scenic designs for When Stars Align and Failure: A Love Story, JR Bruce makes it three in a row with Homefree, transporting us from one homeless hangout to another, with snapshots (of lives once led?) taking the place of leaves on the trees that frame the action. Luke Moyer’s lighting is exciting, too, as is David B. Marling’s sound design, one that combines pulsating music and ambient noise to powerful effect. Michèle Young’s pitch-perfect costumes add to the Homefree’s verisimilitude as do Michael O’Hara’s well-chosen properties.
Homefree is produced by Andre Barron, Donna Simone Johnson, and Kevin Shipp. Laura Steinroeder is assistant director. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager and Emma Pauly assistant stage manager.
With Los Angeles County ranking first in the nation in number of homeless street dwellers (and homeless LGBT youth representing up to 40 percent of those on the street nationwide), the time could not be riper for Homefree’s World Premiere.
That it represents L.A. intimate theater at its best makes it one of Fall 2015’s must-see productions.
The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
September 26, 2015
Photos: Michèle Young