Life can be tough for any teenager but it proves especially trying for the two teen castaways at the heart of And Then They Fell, Tira Palmquist’s riveting World Premiere drama, the latest from Brimmer St. Theatre Company.
Seventeen-year-old Jordan (Chelsea Boyd alternating with Kacey Rogers) has already had it rough sharing a trailer with her perpetually drunk mother Crystal (Faith Imafidon and Jaquita Ta’le) and Mom’s live-in boyfriend Dwayne (Tim Venable), but Crystal’s gone and gotten herself another DUI, which means 28 days of rehab followed by possible incarceration, leaving Dwayne with the keys to the trailer and A-student Jordan to shower at school in the wee hours of the morning thanks to an unpaid electricity bill.
Meanwhile, fellow senior Cal (JJ Hawkins and Lily Nicksay) has gone and gotten himself into yet another fight with some transphobic school bullies, once again trying the patience of a vice principal (Ben Fuller and Brad Harris) who still can’t get it into his head that Cal is no longer a girl named Callista, let alone figure out why Cal would rather the cops be called than his dad.
Along the way, Jordan shares with Cal her obsession with an event that made the headlines several years back, an incident she describes as “five thousand redwing blackbirds falling, significant trauma from internal injuries, pummeled over and over. A heavy, dark sky letting go a burden of birds…”
Kind of like Jordan and Cal, whose seemingly unsolvable plight (youth shelters are only a last resort, public parks are off-limits after dark, squats are temporary at best, and even 24-hour restaurants won’t let you spend the night) will have you thinking about Palmquist’s powerhouse play and the issues it raises long after everything has faded to black—that and two all-around superb casts under Amy K. Harmon’s pitch-perfect direction.
In the Blackbirds cast, Rogers and Nicksay both do breathtaking work, masking their teen characters’ fears with bravado, building a relationship through shared circumstances and needs, and breaking our hearts in the bargain. A terrific Venable keeps us guessing about a man who could well be a stand-up kind of guy, or then again maybe not.
As for Ta’le and Fuller, the chameleonlike pair create one vivid character after another, Ta’le’s hesitantly warm janitor contrasting with her hard-edged but wounded Crystal, her tough-as-nails beat cop, and more, while Gordon vanishes inside a harried but well-meaning vice principal and a folksy, cross-dressing waitress, to name just two.
In the Starlings cast, an instantly endearing Chelsea Boyd combines aching vulnerability with an indomitable fighting spirit as Cal, particularly when pitted against Venable’s volatile Dwayne. Transgender actor JJ Hawkins is equally fine, bringing authenticity and spunk to a Cal who uses humor as a shield and weapon against an intolerant world.
Powerful work by two equally memorable casts in a play that, despite an eleventh-hour detour into melodrama, puts a personal face on a couple of young people we’d be more likely to pass by in the street than stop, look, and listen to.
Video designer Andy Bromell fills scenic designer Katrina Coulourides’s striking trailer-backed set with animated images of flying, falling birds, part of an all-around stunning production design that includes chalked scene-setting titles projected on a school blackboard, Coulourides’s dramatic lighting, Vincent Olivieri’s arresting sound design, and Kaitlyn Kaufman’s just-right costumes, not only for Jordan and Cal but for the dozen or so characters brought to life by Fuller, Imafidon, Harris, and Ta’le.
Ned Mochel provides his accustomed brand of believable fight choreography. Kathryn Eipl is stage manager. Steeve Vajk is technical director. Alice Skok and Celeste Busa are assistant directors. G. Austin Allen is assistant lighting designer.
And Then They Fell is produced by David Jette. Emilia Richeson is co-producer.
Like the five thousand birds that plummeted from the skies over Beebe, Arkansas, Jordan and Cal may look a-okay from the outside, but internal wounds can be the worst. And Then They Fell is, simply put, L.A. intimate theater at its best.
The Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles.
September 27, 2016
October 1, 2016
Photos: Michelle Risucci