There seems to be a formula when it comes to dramas about dysfunctional families. Pick three or four topics to unveil gradually through the course of an evening — adultery, child abuse, impending death, domestic violence, homophobia, crime, substance abuse — and you have yourself a show.
The best plays offset this unpleasantness with humor. “This World We Know,” in its world premiere run at the Firehouse Theatre, does not. From the play’s outset to its conclusion, the audience is hit with deluge of suffering and few jokes to fend off the rising tide of misery.
Jumping between 1976 and the present, Kelly Younger’s script presents two siblings trying to cope with their faults, their traumatic childhoods and each other. In 1976 we have Lottie and Junior (Grey Garrett and Charley Raintree). In present day, under different names, we have Charlotte and Neil (Catherine Bryne and Scott Melton).
Lottie is furious with Junior after he let her 5-year-old climb onto the chimney to prove that Santa Claus is real, resulting in a fall that put the child in the hospital. In the present, Charlotte is trying to find some sort of closure between her and her brother. Eventually we learn that Junior and Neil were beat regularly by their mothers, while the damage to Lottie and Charlotte largely was emotional.
Lottie finds comfort in booze. Junior finds comfort in marijuana. Charlotte finds comfort through her new-age community in Sedona, Arizona. And Neil is suffering from his wife’s recent death from cancer. Portraying life’s suffering seems to be the point of this play, and Younger gives his audience no sharp dialogue or cutting jokes to ease the pain.
The tedium of this 70-minute exercise in anguish leaves little room for the actors to work. Raintree is the lone performer to make his one-note character engaging. The show’s strongest elements are its technical ones, particularly Edwin Slipek’s backyard set with its realistic tree (Slipek is a senior contributing editor for Style).
The show won the Firehouse’s 2013 New American Play Festival, and the decision to stage a world premiere performance is an admirable one. But the script leaves much to be desired. It almost seems to delight in the ways it can make its characters suffer.
Of course, Junior/Neil served in Vietnam, an unjust war a few unjust wars ago. It’s practically a surprise that we don’t learn other depressing secrets about his past or sad signs of his future. Providing only suffering to see, Younger leaves us without reasons to care for these characters. A short flashback to childhood would help elicit empathy, for example, as long as the characters weren’t shown only in the midst of a beating.
“This World We Know” is a nasty little play with no joy or humor to balance its wickedness. While the play’s characters come to some sort of perfunctory understanding by the end, the audience is left without any feeling of resolution, and the explanation for why Junior dropped or let the child fall from the roof is absolutely ridiculous.
With 5th Wall Theatre’s recent “The Lyons” and Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre’s “The Lion in Winter” underway, the city has no shortage of excellent plays about dysfunctional families. “This World We Know” just isn’t one of them. S
“This World We Know” runs through March 7 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, call 355-2001 or visit firehousetheatre.org.