Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The set is simple: a Pottery Barn-esque dining set, laid for six, with a couple of small occasional tables at stage left and right. But it's the environment in which those furnishings sit that establishes a sense of encroaching doom. The walls are painted blood red with a stenciled pattern in bluebut that theme is not contained by the walls, instead spreading across doors and even onto the floor, extending all the way to the first row of audience seats. It's as though we are being told that when very awful things happen, their effects tend to seep not only into every aspect of the lives of those deeply involved in a tragedy, but alsoas in Dear Evan Hanseninto the lives of those more remotely connected.
And just as in Dear Evan Hansen, the tragedy here is teen suicide. Debora (a sizzling Desiree Rogers) and Michael (Lawrence Radecker) are the parents of Joel, a misfit boy who seemed to relish his queer, outsider status, posting videos on YouTube of himself lip-syncing in drag, and calling out "hey, faggot!" to pretty much everyone in his school. Which pissed off Curtis (Baela Tinsley), Joel's classmate and one of a group of boys who relentlessly taunted and bullied him, both in person and online. His excuse?: "He tried to be a freak, and he did it in everyone's face."
On this evening, Curtis and his parents Bill (Kenneth Heaton) and Tamara (Cheryl Smith) have accepted an invitation to dinner with Michael and Debora in orderin Debora's wordsto "clear the negativity." This seems both big-hearted and incredibly naïve on Debora's part, something Michael recognizes when he asks, prior to their guests' arrival (they are late, hence the title), if they are prepared for the evening to be a "complete, unmitigated disaster."
The idea that two families can, during a single dinner party, find healing after one son played a crucial, if somewhat ancillary, role in the death of another seems rather far-fetched. But where would drama be if people didn't sometimes do rather far-fetched things? There's also the fact that the action takes place somewhere in Canada, and the stereotype of Canadians being generally kind, polite, and forgiving isin my experiencebased in truth.
Still, it seems unlikely any true absolution or mercy is likely, given the freshness of the wound. (Though just how fresh, playwright Tannahill never tells us.) The two women are the most committed to the process (Bill tells Michael, when the women are briefly out of the room, that he's "not interested in closure") and when their mama bear instincts kick in, it is between them that the sparks of parental protection are whipped into a wildfire of anger and blame. When Debora spits at Tamara that she is "as complicated as a coloring book," the economic and class differentials between the couples (Debora is an artist and Michael a conservative politician, while Bill and Tamara are more working class) are finally stripped away, and any thought of dessert and coffee are forever banished.
The cast director Evren Odcikin has assembled do wonderful work. Rogers displays a ferocity that is undeniable; in the early scenes she does a marvelous job of presenting a veneer of openness and understandingyet still hinting at the rage her character holds toward anyone who played a part in her son's death. (Which includes not only Curtis and his parents, but also her husband and herself.) Kenneth Heaton is perfect in the role of the lumbering, rather emotionally stunted father of the bully. In his mind, "tough love" is what kids don't get enough of these days, and Heaton manages to make us believe he might be rightor at least that his character truly believes he might be right. As his wife, Cheryl Smith uses her wonderfully expressive face to lead us through her character's regret for her son's actions, as well as her indomitable maternal protectiveness.
Though Tannahill's play takes a somewhat meandering path through the forest of grief and recrimination, often losing its way or finding one dead end after another, he does finally bring us out of the woods with a redemptive, and powerful, final moment.
Late Company, through February 24, 2019, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$50, and can be purchased at NCTCSF.org or by calling 415-861-8972.