The Beautiful Dark A Well Told Cautionary Drama
Thus begins our encounter with what seems to be the most dysfunctional family in the American heartland in The Beautiful Dark by Erik Gernand. It is a world premiere production of Premiere Stages (on campus at Kean University) where it was selected as the winner of the company's 2013 Play Festival competition.
Jake has returned home after dropping out of college just a couple of months into his freshman year. Violent, hostile, disruptive, disobedient, hateful and superbly mendacious, Jake is making life at home miserable for his mother Nancy, a high school principal, and his thirteen-year-old brother Charlie. Most of all, Jake hates his father Tom, a cop. Although he's occasionally there to be helpful to Nancy when asked, Tom has the good fortune not to be around much, as he is divorced from her and lives elsewhere with his second wife and her child.
Both Jake and Charlie treat their weak, ineffectual, recovering alcoholic mother like dirt. Charlie actually looks up to Jake and voluntarily does his laundry, although Jack treats him little better than he does their mother (Charlie will have an epiphany late in the proceedings). Despite a high pile of mounting evidence that makes it appear likely that Jake is preparing to launch another Columbine-style massacre, Nancy is blind to it. Also, she is beguiled by his lies.
In the play's most powerful, provocative and gut wrenching scene, Jake calls Nancy the foulest of two-word expletives, causing Tom to lose it and punch Jake on the jaw. Nancy responds by comforting the bloodied Jake. She orders Tom to leave and never return, threatening to call the police and charge him with assault. I know that anyone who hits a kid today is a candidate for Leavenworth, but even Mother Theresa would have punched this kid out. As a result, I found Nancy to be totally unsympathetic.
There is a sub-plot involving Nancy and Jim Marsh, a veteran teacher at her school whom she learns is a connoisseur of pornography that could be considered particularly inappropriate for a teacher. Unlike her pathetic blindness to Jake's pathology, Nancy handles the Jim Marsh situation with common sense, compassion and, ultimately, firm and proper resolve. I would assume that Gernand is contrasting Nancy's on the job competence with her inability to cope reasonably in a family crisis. Thus, Gernand effectively leads us to seeing and understanding how difficult it can be to face intolerable realities at home.
Dana Benningfield is a solidly effective Nancy, conveying at length anger and intense emotional suffering most convincingly. Our lack of sympathy for her is inherent in the writing. Daniel Pellicano is a scary and totally believable Jake, particularly when smoothly lying about himself and his motives.
Steven Rishard garners the sympathy inherent in the role of Tom by never reaching out for it. Logan Riley Bruner conveys the awkwardness with which Charlie responds to the hard to understand situation in which he finds himself. Mitch Greenberg (Mr. Marsh) and Cara Ganski as Jake's college friend Sydney are compelling in smaller roles.
Director John Wooten has elicited solid performances, smoothly and effectively employing the large setting (by Joseph Gourley) which encompasses two rooms of the family home, and Nancy's school office efficiently.
As The Beautiful Dark progresses it becomes more and more apparent that the seemingly wildly dysfunctional family under its microscope is not particularly more dysfunctional than many others. Furthermore, Gernand does not yield to the temptation of attempting the impossible task of imposing a cause and effect rationale to explain aberrant behavior and ideation. As a cautionary and dramatically explosive exploration of a frightening and difficult societal phenomenon, The Beautiful Dark could become a widely produced, influential play in regional and community theatres.
The Beautiful Dark continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday - Sunday 3 PM) through September 22, 2013, at Premiere Stages Zelda Fry Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey, 07083; Box Office: 908-737-7469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.
The Beautiful Dark by Erik Gernand; directed by John Wooten