Here, and in all family dramas, everybody has all the goods on everybody else. And, true to form, each family member catches a sort of selective amnesia about their own vulnerability, just when they're letting loose with a long-standing grievance. And then everyone else can let loose on the first speaker, with a verbal barrage that can land as many psychological blows as there are stabbings and poisonings in the sword-fight scene in Hamlet.
But thanks to playwright Tara Sissom, and the improvisation-in-rehearsal that led to this world premiere, Pancake Breakfast balances glorious sentiment, acrid bitterness, and all the hope and fear of unsolvable real life with awesome grace and polish in both performance and staging. You may be surprised at who takes most of the blame but, you have to admit, it's a fresh take on the problems facing today's basic social unit.
The set suggests nothing more than a barely updated homage to You Can't Take it With You, with July 4th party accents adorning a kitchen and dining room area in a ramshackle house in New England, where yellowed newspapers are piled by an old harvest gold refrigerator. And several scene changes are accomplished when the cast launches into parade-marching in the half-light to the sound of an old Sousa four-four-timer in tableaux reminiscent of Feiffer's People. These transitions lead them to the table, or a little boat dock, or a side room, or bathroom. But, beyond that dramatic expressionism, with all the beautifully detailed minutia of family life on parade, and all the embarrassing skeletons that come tumbling out on stage like the mess from Fibber McGee's closet, I couldn't help smiling like an idiot from about the 20 minute mark, and all the rest of the way through.
Arlene Malinowski brings a prickly perseverance to the role of Lillian, the jilted ex-wife. Now she's the lone parent in the house, hanging on till the bitter end in a metaphorical boxing ring with her combative, high-functioning autistic son (Evan Linder). I'm sure Ms. Malinowski is tired of being compared to a young Jane Fonda, but she's definitely in the same ballpark in this performance (and this really helps bring home what may be the evening's thesis). Lillian has organized a July 4th weekend after the death of her mother, trying to recreate all the old familiar memories. But it's director Sean Kelly and (one presumes) "Script Director" Whit Nelson who really bring everything to life with unexpected joy and affection. And when Ms. Malinowski is trapped in the same room with her romantic rival (the delightful Megan Johns), lint-rollering young Mr. Linder before an Abraham Lincoln look-alike contest, his "Honest Abe" becomes an unexpected, silent talisman of decency for the two very different women.
It's also off in that same side room that an even more magical scene takes place, in a song-and-dance number. And even in the blizzard of characterization that presages it, as the cast sweeps across the stage to begin "Put a Little Sunshine in Your Smile," you can already see the actors are excited to present the most enchanting part of the show.
But Ms. Malinowski and her on-stage sister (Susan Veronika Adler) convey a surprising life lesson. After a big fight, Lillian has a great scene, huddled in desultory fashion in a rust-stained bathtub, while her daughter tries to talk her out, and into the party again. "I wanted to be independent," Lillian says, as if she's ready to go down the drain herself: "but all I ended up being was alone." In fact, both she and her sister Eleanor (Ms. Adler) suddenly, unexpectedly, face the same painful truth about the feminist choices of their youth.
I'm not sure that makes Pancake Breakfast an "anti-feminist" work. After all, who hasn't got a few regrets, and isn't it a tiny bit better to have them from having had your own way? And who's to say that perhaps a few of the women's libbers from the 1970s really aren't just as much sadder-but-wiser as any of the rest of us? Interestingly, Thea Lux, as Lillian's post-feminist daughter, provides gentle encouragement during that bathtub monolog but, somehow, in her under-acted simplicity, the daughter actually stands out more than you might expect: exalted by her own display of sympathy and humility. So, maybe I'm wrong, and maybe this post-feminist daughter actually puts the last nail in the coffin of 1970s feminism, with the gentlest killing blow.
There are a dozen fine moments in this production which, for a play that runs barely 100 minutes, is quite a lot. Jack McCabe, as the grandfather, breaks into a night-time speech on the boat dock about space and time and wormholes, though it's not till later that we understand why. And his childish shouting match with Mr. Linder's Asperger's character (with both costumed as Lincoln look-alikes) is absurdly funny. There is a vague feeling of natural sloppiness that trickles all through Pancake Breakfast, giving it the flavor of real family life, and allowing the cast and crew to fully exploit this family's deeper emotions.
Steve Ratcliff is very fine as the blissfully divorced father. But, somehow, second-feminist-leading-lady Ms. Adler, and Andrew Hobgood (as her estranged son), aren't allowed their full emotional breakthroughs in their particular storylines. Maybe they need one more scene of development or resolution (Mr. Hobgood's reasons for a strange heaviness also seem a little uninspired, or lacking in poetry). Still, both of them, and Gary Tiedemann (as Mr. Hobgood's boyfriend), provide plenty of naturalistic acting power, and add a lot to the sense that life will always have an untidy feel to it. And that just makes the magical moments work better, when they regularly unfold before us.
Through December 19, 2010, at the Viaduct Theatre (visit thenewcolony.org for performance and ticket information), a very short block south (on Western) from Belmont, about a mile east of interstates 90-94, at 3111 N. Western Ave. Parking is across the big Western Ave. causeway (you can easily cross underneath, on foot). That said, walking into the building itself is one of the creepiest sensations I've ever had attending a night at the theater. You enter through an utterly dilapidated and disreputable fašade, with a weird, nearly burned-out old "arrow" sign overhead. But it's quite nice, once you get inside ...
Photo by Anne Peterson