Dysfunctional families have guaranteed theatrical fireworks since the Ancient Greeks, and families don’t get much more dysfunctional than the Thompsons in Nathan Wellman’s darkly comedic Mom’s Dead, a frequently compelling if overly padded World Premiere from Sacred Fools.
The sudden death just before Christmas of 60something matriarch Barbara has reunited her ostentatiously grieving husband Arthur (Mark Costello) and three of the couple’s four adult children at Mom’s funeral, their first time together in years.
Hard-as-nails Alice (Jessica Sherman) squabbles with her milquetoast husband Dave (Richard McDonald) as their surly teenage son Gary (Cameron Kasal) plays video games oblivious to his surroundings.
Stoner John (Taylor Marr) doesn’t even try to hide the grudge he holds against Dad (“Do you have any idea who you’re defending right now?”) despite still living under his parents’ roof well into adulthood.
Laura (Halle Charlton) searches for any excuse to bolt (What if John left the garage door open and someone came and stole her bike?) while fretting that without Mom to hold the family together, they’re all going to “just … poof.”
Alice has already escaped to a life not unlike her mother’s, at least on the surface, though it’s unlikely that Barbara terrified the other PTA moms the way stay-at-home housewife Alice does.
Laura’s own exit from the family home might be a blessing were the youngest Thompson not a drunken, prescription drug-addicted mess whose late-night calls have prompted more than one stomach pumping and sent her parents thousands of dollars into debt.
Only John has stuck around even after Dad lost his job, though only to sleep during the day and stay up late (and stoned) watching DVDs.
As for eldest child Mike (Eric Giancoli), if he hasn’t shown up at Mom’s funeral, it’s likely his successful life as marketing VP with a perfect size-2 wife and a presumably perfect young son has kept him otherwise occupied.
With Arthur still railing on about four ungrateful children who didn’t deserve a mother as angelic as Barbara, John pulls Laura aside to drop a bombshell. Mom’s death wasn’t accidental. “Dad pushed her,” he tells his stunned sister. “She didn’t fall down those stairs. He pushed her. I saw it.”
And we’re only ten minutes into Mom’s Dead.
Like a number of Sacred Fools World Premieres before it, Wellman’s was developed over the course of the company’s popular long-running weekly late-night series Serial Killers, which presents three continuing stories facing off each week against two new ones, the audience voting at the end of the performance on which three will survive to compete the following week.
This explains Mom’s Dead’s episodic nature, and while ten ten-minute scenes may make perfect sense in a weekly competition, put together they add up to a play that could stand some pruning.
One scene in particular, an overwrought ten-minute monolog delivered by Mike to an invisible wife and child, may have made for an interesting weekly episode. Here, however, it proves a stylistic misfit that goes on and on and on. (A couple of flashback and/or fantasy sequences could stand rethinking as well.)
Still, flaws and all, Wellman’s play is one sure to resonate with anyone whose family even remotely resembles the Thompsons, and under Alicia Conway Rock’s direction, performances could not be finer.
Most compelling of all is recent UCLA grad Charlton’s tormented mess of a youngest child. Costello’s raging bull of an Arthur, Sherman’s tightly-wound but inwardly broken Alice, and Marr’s you-can’t-help-but-like-him John are all absolutely terrific. Kasal’s Gary hits just the right angry adolescent notes, McDonald makes the most of Dave’s briefer moments, and a fiery Giancoli gives the rather one-note Mike his all.
Sandy von Guttenstein’s set makes ingenious use of movable cubes (only Arthur’s favorite chair can be called authentic living room decor), with director Rock and sound designer Ben Rock scoring points for making sure multiple scene changes don’t slow momentum. Jennifer Christina DeRosa’s costumes, Ashley McCormick’s lighting, and Ashley Crow’s props are all first-rate. and Mike Mahaffey has contributed some realistic fight choreography.
Mom’s Dead is produced for Sacred Fools by David Mayes. Carrie Keranen is associate producer. Angel Hernandez is stage manager. Bo Powell is assistant director. Anthony Backman, Bryan Bellomo, Joshua Benton, Madeline Fair, Phoebe Kuhlman, and Powell are understudies.
With judicious editing, Mom’s Dead could well have life beyond its World Premiere engagement. Even as stands, it makes for a refreshingly acidic alternative to the holly jolly holiday fare playing elsewhere around town.
The Sacred Fools Theater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles.
December 3, 2106
Photos: Ben Rock